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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Linking Tobacco to Risk Assessments

Tobacco industries employed scientists “to convince public health officials not that cigarettes were safe, but that there was not yet sufficient evidence of their danger to justify limiting places where tobacco could be smoked,” according to Environmental and Occupational Health Professor David Michaels. Now, under laws like the Data Quality Act, manufacturing doubt to keep harmful substances in the air and on the market is common practice. In a great Op-Ed for the Baltimore Sun, Michaels links the historic example of the tobacco industry manufacturing uncertainty to keep people smoking with OMB’s new bulletin on risk assessment. Michaels explains how OMB’s onerous new risk assessment guidelines for agencies create another way to use uncertainty as an excuse to not regulate:
Except when political appointees override the judgment of career federal scientists (as when a White House staffer rewrote an Environmental Protection Agency report on global warming to highlight scientific uncertainty), the nonpolitical staff at regulatory agencies can generally see through these crude efforts to create doubt. And Congress has refused to pass the Bush administration's attempts, such as the initiative with the Orwellian name "Clear Skies," to weaken environmental laws.

Clearly frustrated, the White House is making a run around Congress to change the way the agencies conduct risk assessments, the studies that form the basis for health protections. The Office of Management and Budget has proposed mandatory "guidelines" that would require agencies to conduct impossibly comprehensive risk assessments before issuing scientific or technical documents, including the rules polluters have to follow.

What appears at first blush to be good government reform is in fact a backdoor attempt to undermine existing environmental laws. If this is successful, the uncertainty manufactured by polluters will be written into federal risk assessments, providing the justification to weaken public health protection.

Posted by Genevieve Smith