“Poison Papers”: Collusion between chemical industry and US regulators

by Bruce Jackson, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) mission statement is “to protect human health and the environment”; however, the agency has often been criticised for its strong links to some industries.

How strong the links with the chemical industry could be was recently investigated by the Bioscience Resource Project and the Center for Media and Democracy.

The result was the disclosure, in July 2017, of the so called “Poison Papers”: some 20,000 documents obtained from federal agencies and chemical manufacturers via open record requests and public interest litigation. Some of the documents date back to the 1920s.

Corporations concealing detrimental data is, unfortunately, not that unusual; what is perhaps unusual with the Poison Papers is the apparent collusion of the US regulators in allowing, or even encouraging, the cover-up of such data.

For example, glyphosphate is the active ingredient in a well-known weed-killer in use since the 1970s. Studies have indicated that glyphosphate on its own may have a relatively low risk of being carcinogenic. However, from the late 1990s, the manufacturer introduced a number of different formulations to the market; formulations identified by the company as being of a much higher risk. Yet emails between the manufacturer and the EPA show the EPA was unwilling to either undertake studies or request study information from the manufacturer. In fact, an April 2015 email from a then manager within the EPA’s pesticides division, sent to the chemical company, shows he was willing to help shut down a review of glyphosate being undertaken by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Glyphosphate molecule
Glyphosphate molecule

In March 2015, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosphate “a probable human carcinogen”; rather contradictorily, in November 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that it was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”.  Why the difference? The IARC relied on independent studies, whilst the EFSA relied upon unpublished company-submitted studies with footnotes redacted by the company. The EPA in April 2016 agreed with the EFSA, only to retract its conclusion 3 days later, stating its publication had been “in error”. No further explanation was provided at the time.  In defending itself later, the EPA stated that during pesticide registration “the safety of all inert ingredients is considered”, and released a supporting document that failed to support this statement, simply because the EPA had not asked the company for the data.

The papers provide multiple examples of the EPA and other regulatory departments acting under what appears to be instructions from chemical companies, for example in relation to PCBs and dioxins.

Prior to this disclosure, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General had reportedly instigated a probe into some of the accusations. There are also numerous ongoing lawsuits in the US against at least one of the chemical companies, alleging that glyphosphate exposure has resulted in cancer in either the claimant or their relatives. The disclosure of these papers could prove a thorn in the side of the defending chemical company.

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