By EMILY YEHLE of Greenwire
William Hirzy, a former U.S. EPA chemist, has a favorite example when discussing the role of science in government policy: fluoride in drinking water.
His view — and that of the EPA chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union — is that the chemical can be dangerous, possibly increasing the risk of bone cancer in young boys. But EPA has yet to change its 4-milligrams-per-liter drinking water standard (though a spokesman said the agency is “actively moving ahead” with an assessment).
Hirzy worries that EPA officials are dragging their feet because the U.S. Public Health Service has long touted fluoride as a beneficial additive to drinking water. And to him, that slow response is indicative of the Obama administration’s failure to fulfill its promise of scientific integrity in federal agencies.
President Obama first directed that a scientific integrity directive be released in July 2009. By July 2010, White House officials promised it was forthcoming; almost two months later, there’s no indication of when it will emerge.
“Why this administration has taken so long, I don’t know,” said Hirzy, who is now an adjunct professor at American University. “I don’t know the motives. I just know the effects.”
Government scientists had high hopes when Obama took office. But Hirzy and others say that some are now disillusioned, witnessing less change than they had expected. They point to EPA’s use of dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the recent salmonella outbreak and egg recall, and the revelation that the diabetes drug Avandia increases the risk of heart attacks. In all cases, the concerns of some agency scientists were ignored, they say.
“All these times where something’s gone wrong, it’s pretty clear that someone on the inside knew or had concerns,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Yet because we have no clear guidance on when and how scientists can speak out, and since we have no clear protection for whistle-blowers, it’s a lot to ask someone to go out on a limb.”