Can data quality control be hazardous to your
Industry special interests are burying information on cancer-causing
chemicals and, according to watchdog groups, the government is helping them do
it—in the name of “data quality.”
In a study of the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology
Program, OMB Watch, a DC-based policy-research group, reports that industry is
frustrating the work of government researchers with petitions that are light on
science but heavy with accusations of anti-business “bias.”
Public interest advocates warn that corporations are co-opting the federal
Data Quality Act to paralyze scientists with frivolous allegations of
inaccuracy, driving a stealth assault on public-health research.
In 2000, Congress passed the Data Quality Act under the guidance of lobbyist
Jim Tozzi, a former administrator with the Office of Management and Budget under
Reagan who now heads the industry-backed Center for Regulatory Effectiveness
(CRE). The two-paragraph statute broadly mandates that agencies uphold “the
quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information” they
That’s a laudable principle, critics say, but the corporate-friendly Bush
administration is promoting exploitation of the law.
“It’s provided a mechanism for industry associations to take another bite of
the apple,” says OMB Watch analyst Clay Northouse, “to raise another challenge
against a regulation coming into effect and affecting their business
In fiscal years 2003 and 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
Health and Human Services and other federal bodies fielded 80 “substantive” Data
Quality Act requests for corrections, more than half of which came from
industry, according to the Government Accountability Office. The resulting
bureaucratic review process could take as long as two years.
OMB Watch focused on the National Toxicology Program’s biennial “Report on
Carcinogens,” which describes 1,700 substances linked to genetic mutations or
cancer. Rigorously reviewed by toxicology experts, the research is used by
health professionals, community groups and environmental regulators. The
upcoming edition has been delayed by more than a year while Health and Human
Services mulls 10 data-quality complaints from industries.
In 2004, Tozzi’s CRE filed petitions seeking formal review of the toxicology
program’s research and peer-review procedures—specifically those concerning a
widely used pesticide called Atrazine. Joining CRE were the Kansas Corn Growers
Association and other trade groups.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group, has
pushed the EPA (with little success) to more tightly regulate Atrazine. The
organization says the complaints are not about ensuring the quality of
information but about blocking it from public view.
“The CRE’s petition was aimed at preventing Atrazine from getting listed in
the ‘Report on Carcinogens’ by preventing the entire report from getting
issued,” says Jen Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense
Tozzi, whose group openly receives funding from industry co-petitioners,
acknowledges the stake in challenging government research. Because the data is
used to create costly regulations, he contends, “of course the [DQA] is used by
industry, because industry pays the bill.”
The American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing chemical
manufacturers, tried to capitalize on the Data Quality Act in 2004 by protesting
that a document used by the National Toxicology Program’s scientific reviewers
“wrongly characterize[d] the cancer potential” of the industrial chemical
naphthalene. This could lead to “product liability claims, diminished sales …
and related commercial damage,” the association claimed.
After a year and a half of review, Health and Human Services denied the
OMB Watch says that because there are other, more-reasonable safeguards for
vetting information, like public comments, the government should place limits on
data-quality petitions so that corporations have one less avenue to influence
policies and science that protect the public.
Yet some watchdogs have wielded the Data Quality Act to beat industry at its
own game. In 2004, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a
nonprofit group, successfully used the Act to challenge invalid scientific
analyses that enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to inflate population
assessments of endangered Florida Panthers.
Public interest groups, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, have “far
more opportunities to expose industry manipulation of the science in the
regulatory agencies than the industry has to expose anti-industry bias.”
Nonetheless, Rena Steinzor, an environmental law expert with the Center for
Progressive Reform, says that even if some challenges are legitimate, the Data
Quality Act ultimately bleeds an already embattled regulatory system.
“I just think it’s counterproductive,” says Steinzor. “These health and
safety agencies—which have suffered a lot already from attacks from the Bush
administration—don’t need to be any more demoralized and harassed.”