Six Ways Nancy Beck Showed Us She Doesn’t Care About Us or Science

May 13, 2020 | 3:02 pm
US Senate
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

As I balance working from home and caring for my toddler, I spend a lot of time staring at the scores of products in my home that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is tasked with keeping safe. Cribs, highchairs, toys, arts and crafts, bike helmets—the list goes on. That means I also spend a lot of time thinking about the potential for Dr. Nancy Beck—a former American Chemistry Council officialto lead that agency. And let the record show I don’t trust that she would use science to keep us safe.

Here are six times her comments, positions, or actions have shown that she seeks a specific endgame of industry profits and will not serve the public interest.

1. Her quest to standardize industry-friendly risk assessment

Early in her career, Beck worked at the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is tasked with ensuring that agencies’ proposed rules don’t overlap and evaluating cost-benefit analyses of proposed rules. OIRA is not supposed to tamper with how agencies evaluate science – but this is exactly what Beck proposed when, in 2006, she helped draft a proposed rule that would overhaul how risks to human health and the environment are assessed at federal agencies.

OMB asked the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC) to independently review the rule. That NRC study was scathing, calling the guidance a “fundamentally flawed” proposal that “oversimplified” issues like scientific uncertainty and, if implemented, would likely stunt the efficacy of federal risk assessment. Fortunately, the rule was abandoned, and in 2007, OIRA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a memo “[reinforcing] generally-accepted principles for risk analysis” instead. But Beck’s efforts to unravel health-protective approaches to assessing risk did not end there.

Within a couple of months of arriving at EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) in 2017, she issued the chemical safety “framework rules” under the Toxic Substances Control Act that were eerily similar to the American Chemistry Council’s demands. The rules included sweeping changes to conducting risk assessments, including failing to consider worker exposure, low-level uses, and legacy uses of chemicals—which in the case of asbestos, meant that the agency wouldn’t be able to consider the risks faced by those living or working in older buildings. Along with a long list of public health and environmental organizations, UCS challenged this unscientific “framework rules” in court and in November 2019, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that EPA cannot ignore legacy uses of a chemical and it can’t ignore certain uses and exposures as it sees fit.

2. Her attempts to remove linear dose response models

In 2015, while at the American Chemistry Council, Nancy Beck commented on a petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), requesting that it amend its standards for protection against radiation. As These standards were not widely contested: In 2006, NAS concluded that the scientific literature demonstrated “a linear dose-response relationship” between radiation exposure and cancer in humans. The congressionally chartered Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements affirmed this, finding in 2018 “no conclusive evidence” that refuted the linear relationship. The Linear no threshold model assumes that there is no level below which scientists would see zero impact—even at very low levels, exposure to radiation may result in some biological effects.

But in her comment to NRC, Beck challenged this. She pressed the Commission to consider studies on low-dose exposure of radiation to mice, and suggested that the linear non-threshold model may not be needed to protect health. She wrote, “Our biological, medical, and toxicological understanding of how chemicals and radiation cause cancer has greatly advanced since the NRC last significantly evaluated the scientific underpinnings of the regulation. This improved understanding should be central to the reexamination of the scientific validity of the historical linear no threshold approach to radiation risk assessment.”

This statement encourages the federal government to consider science from outside the mainstream, and Beck’s push to stray from the linear non-threshold model in government regulations has also appeared in the agency’s restricted science rule, which she helped draft.

3. Her attempts to undermine systematic review processes

Almost immediately after beginning her stint at the EPA in 2017, Beck worked to undermine the EPA chemical office’s systematic review process under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This work mirrored her earlier efforts to “improve” health review processes: In 2013, she tried to undermine the evidence-evaluation process for EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System and the the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Upon arriving at EPA in 2017, she drafted the TSCA systematic review framework, defying best practices for systematic review. As researchers point out in a recent paper, Beck’s framework would “exclude relevant research from chemical assessments, leading to underestimation of health risks and resulting in inadequate policies that allow unsafe chemical exposures,” and “could be especially detrimental for populations more vulnerable to chemical exposures, such as pregnant women and children.” Beck’s framework has already been enacted but will face serious scrutiny from NAS in an upcoming review.

4. Her meddling with chemical standards and diminishing risk

As a result of Beck’s efforts to undermine systematic review changes, it is harder for EPA to conduct health-protective risk assessments – but her efforts didn’t stop when she left EPA. Beck’s role at the White House National Economic Council has given her access to EPA scientists’ work once it reaches OMB review, which has given her another opportunity to alter the science and accomplish the goals she’s had since her time with the American Chemistry Council. A 2020 risk evaluation from EPA on the industrial chemical, Trichloroethylene (TCE), came back from OMB review with massive redline edits that ignored the risks to fetal heart defects and changed EPA’s scientific conclusions. Beck was likely involved, seeing as she has been trying to convince EPA of its safety for almost a decade.

In 2013, Beck, on behalf of the ACC, commented on EPA’s assessments for three dangerous industrial chemicals, TCE, n-methylpyrollidone (NMP), and methylene chloride (DCM). In it, she criticized EPA’s conservative approach to estimating risk and suggests that EPA should defer more to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on workplace hazards like TCE exposure. Beck writes, “The assessments for DCM, NMP, and TCE consider potential risks to workers without addressing the occupational controls in place as a result of a worker standard, Permissible Exposure Limit (PELs), or for personal protective equipment (PPE) requirement established by [OSHA] under the 1970 OSH Act” – essentially, “OSHA should oversee this, and already does.”

But David Michaels, then-head of OSHA, wrote to the EPA in 2016 and made a strong case that EPA has the authority, under TSCA, to regulate the chemicals before they become a workplace hazard, and that OSHA’s authority is limited to certain professions and uses and would not include consumer uses.

And, as Michaels explained in a separate comment about respirators (a type of PPE), they can be an effective supplement but are the “least satisfactory approach to exposure control” because their efficacy is diminished by a multitude of factors – for example, by not being worn properly. Michaels reiterated this concern in a 2020 meeting of EPA’s Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals, tasked with reviewing EPA’s flawed TCE assessment. He said that EPA, for its TCE evaluation and all its recent risk assessments, makes several faulty assumptions about the workplace: “First, that workers will be given proper [PPE], in this case respirators, by their employer. Second, they will be able to use that PPE. They’ll be trained to use it correctly and they don’t have medical conditions that will preclude that use. And third, that the PPE will be effective in protecting them.”

Beck’s push to assume that OSHA standards will protect workers from hazardous chemicals diminishes the risk that workers and the general public face from these threats. Without stronger EPA standards that put the burden on industry to end uses, reduce emissions, or clean up legacy contamination, we are left vulnerable to the well-studied health effects.

5. She is no stranger to political interference

While at EPA, Nancy Beck was among the officials working to help the White House bury CDC’s toxicological profile on PFAS because the profile – which suggested that PFAS was dangerous at doses much lower than previously thought – would be a “public relations nightmare.” In one email UCS obtained from a FOIA request, Beck’s name was among other White House and EPA officials on emails brainstorming how to stall the document’s release.

In her current role at the White House, Beck has also worked to prevent CDC guidance on COVID-19 from reaching the public. This weekend, her name appeared in an AP story from this weekend about the CDC’s “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up American Again Framework,” which was heavily researched by CDC experts, written for different audiences, and included guidance on how business owners, faith leaders, educators, and state and local officials could safely reopen their states. Days before the guidance was officially squashed, Nancy Beck gave false reassurance to a CDC official that the guidance would go public soon: “They need to be approved before they can move forward. WH principals are in touch with the task force so the task force should be aware of the status.” Turns out, the White House would not approve the document and make it public, despite clearance from CDC head, Robert Redfield.

Nancy Beck is no stranger to political interference in scientific guidance, but seeing her take part in these conversations is the final straw.

6. ACC took scientifically questionable positions during her tenure

Beck worked at the American Chemistry Council for only five years (January 2012 to April 2017), but in that time, the chemical industry’s largest trade association took scientifically indefensible positions on chemicals hazardous to human health.

  • Silica: The ACC fought tooth and nail against OSHA’s efforts to tighten standards for silica, which would save nearly 700 lives and prevent nearly 1,600 new cases of silicosis, a lung disease, annually. In its comment, the ACC wrote: “The best available science shows that the current OSHA PEL [Permissible Exposure Limit] for general industry is appropriate to protect against silica-related disease” – an inaccuracy that defies scientific consensus.
  • Formaldehyde: In 2011, the ACC created a website that touts the environmental benefits of formaldehyde, casts doubt on established health studies linking the chemical to a range of ailments, and assures the public that voluntary industry standards will keep consumers safe. In a bid to stall regulators, the ACC also persuaded Congress in 2014 to commission a reevaluation of EPA’s science on formaldehyde, which lasted 3 years and reached the same conclusion that other scientific and regulatory bodies had – that formaldehyde is “known to be a human carcinogen.”
  • BPA: BPA, a ubiquitous chemical that disrupts the endocrine system, has been an ACC target for years as scientists learn more about its damaging effects on humans, even at low doses. In 2015, the ACC launched a campaign downplaying the risks of BPA, using the slogan “Listen to the Science.” The campaign publicized a minority of studies that cast doubt on BPA’s risk – and ignored the vast body of evidence that suggests adverse health effects associated with BPA exposure.
  • Organohalogen Flame Retardants: The ACC has long spread misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of flame retardants, despite the scientific community’s agreement that they may cause reproductive impairment, neurological impacts, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity, cancer, and immune disorders. In 2017, this evidence compelled CPSC to begin the process of banning additive, polymeric organhalogen flame retardants (OFRs) from consumer products.

ACC’s misinformation on the science behind these chemicals has resulted in undue delays of federal regulations that would help save lives.

Her “public service” should end here

Nancy Beck’s is nothing if not consistent. For decades, she has advocated for and made far-reaching changes to risk assessment and how EPA can use the best available science that sacrifice rigor and scientific independence. She has pulled out every trick in the playbook to meddle with the science for industry’s benefit. If confirmed as chairwoman of CPSC, she will continue to do the same thing at the expense of all our safety. Call or email your senators today and tell them why you don’t want Nancy Beck at the helm of an agency charged with keeping us safe.