A toxicologist named this week by President Donald Trump to oversee the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) chemical safety programs is catalyzing controversy. Some scientists and industry groups are praising Michael Dourson of the University of Cincinnati in Ohio for his policy experience and technical expertise. But critics worry Dourson’s links to the chemical industry will color how he’ll implement a new law reforming EPA’s process for regulating potentially dangerous chemicals. Dourson’s religious beliefs are also attracting attention, in particular his past use of scientific findings to support claims made in the Bible.
Dourson, tapped on 17 July to be EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP), would oversee EPA programs that regulate industrial chemicals and pesticides if he earns Senate confirmation. The nomination has become a political hot potato, as Dourson would lead OCSPP as it reworks its approach to implementing a bipartisan 2016 law that reformed the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, the statute that governs EPA’s ability to regulate industrial chemicals).
Dourson’s experience, spanning 4 decades, includes multiple science- and risk-assessment–related posts in low- to middle-tier EPA offices throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as well as decades as a research toxicologist. That experience has proved to be a double-edged sword, though, as a chemical risk-assessment nonprofit that he led for 2 decades has come under scrutiny for its longtime reliance on chemical industry funding and its history of consulting for chemical companies
“Unfortunately, this nomination fits the clear pattern of the Trump administration in appointing individuals to positions for which they have significant conflicts of interest,” Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a New York City–headquartered group, said in an 18 July statement.
The nomination follows another controversial appointment, of Nancy Beck—a toxicologist formerly of the Washington, D.C.–based American Chemistry Council (ACC), the largest U.S. chemical industry lobbying group—as deputy assistant administrator of OCSPP. More generally, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has sought to institute changes at EPA that could lead to greater industry voice in agency decisions, including through changes to its science advisory panels.
ACC and other industry groups have welcomed the new approach, faulting what they called the Obama administration’s overly stringent and economically stifling regulations. The group has called on the Senate to swiftly confirm Dourson, who it says is a “highly respected, award winning scientist,” to ensure the success of TSCA reform.
But environmental, health, and consumer advocates have balked at what they view as an industry-friendly implementation of reforms so far. “If his track record is any indication, Dr. Dourson’s nomination threatens to move us further away from health-protective implementation of the new TSCA,” EDF’s Denison said.
Meanwhile, another aspect of Dourson’s background—his authorship of “science-Bible stories”—is attracting attention. Dourson authored a trio of books called Evidence of Faith, which assume Bible stories are literally true and discuss how modern scientific findings might relate to the stories. Dourson has characterized his works as “matching science and Biblical text,” according to BuzzFeed News.
The Reverend John Arthur Nunes, president of Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod–affiliated Concordia College in the New York City metropolitan area, cited Dourson’s “judicious integration of faith and the sciences” as a big asset. “Far too often the proposal of a relationship between science and religion is viewed with incompatibility at best or with inimicality at worst,” he said in statement shared by EPA.
Detractors are highlighting a remark he made to the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News in 2014, when he used a biblical analogy to defend his risk-assessment nonprofit group’s industry funding and consulting work for chemical companies: “Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them.”
This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York City–based environmental group, had a blunt reaction to that comment: “God help us.”