Stop Toying With the CPSC

Annys Shin of the Washington Post has reported that Dr. Gail Charnley, a well-known corporate product defense expert, is the White Houseâs leading candidate for the chairmanship of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Weâve written extensively here about this beleaguered agency. Finally, after the nation watched helplessly at the recall of millions of lead-contaminated toys, President Bush has evidently decided to replace current Chairman Nancy Nord with someone more competent to safeguard the interests of manufacturers of dangerous products.

The Post article lists a few reasons the public might be concerned about a Charnley appointment, including one dispute over a missing conflict of interest disclosure. Curious about Dr. Charnleyâs work, I spent a little time on the web reviewing selected aspects of her work, and have turned up what appears to be a new failure to disclose a pretty basic financial conflict. But I'll return to that after reviewing what the Post has learned:

In 2006, for example, she wrote an op-ed article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch opposing tougher restrictions on power-plant emissions in neighboring Illinois on behalf of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a nonprofit group funded by utilities, railroads and mining companies. In 2004, she and a colleague wrote a letter to the technical journal Environmental Health Perspectives about a study on human testing of pesticides that they had co-authored without disclosing that it had been funded partly by pesticide makers. The journal's editor ran a disclosure after Charnley and her colleague disputed having a conflict of interest. [See update below.]

Charnley was also a consultant for the tobacco industry from the early 1990s through 2001, according to internal tobacco industry documents collected as a part of the 1998 master settlement between the industry and 46 state attorneys general.

A brief visit to some web documents gives a more complete sense of Dr. Charnleyâs work. In the early 1990s, when the tobacco industry was fighting an EPA risk assessment threatening to label secondhand tobacco smoke as the cause of disease and death among non-smokers, Dr. Charnley was one of the scientists Big Tobacco hired to hold the line. She attended a number of scientific meetings and prepared âprivileged and confidentialâ reports (here and here are two).

Returning to the Post:

She's not thought of as a consumer advocate per se but as someone hired by industry to represent their point of view," said Lynn Goldman, a former assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, who has testified at hearings with Charnley.

Dr. Goldmanâs description is easily confirmed through the web search. In recent years, Dr. Charnley has also represented several industry groups, including the Chlorine Chemistry Council in proceedings of the National Toxicology Program. She has written in opposition to strengthening perchlorate standards (see here and here, although there is no indication in these documents who if anyone sponsored this work).

I hope Iâm wrong, but my reading of more recent materials suggests that the failure to recognize conflict of interest is not limited to her work with pesticide manufacturers. In March 2006, Dr. Charnley published an article in WebMDâs Medscape entitled Assessing and Managing Methylmercury Risks Associated With Power Plant Mercury Emissions in the United States. Dr. Charnley is listed on the Medscape paper as affiliated with HealthRisk Strategies, her own consulting firm. The article contained the prominent conflict of interest disclosure statement:

Disclosure: Gail Charnley, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

And it includes this note:

Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by a grant from the American Council on Science and Health, which had no control over its content.

However, my simple web search found that for the last two years, Dr. Charnley has been traveling around the country on behalf of the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED), a coal industry group fighting for looser environmental controls. Her work involved telling state officials in Idaho, Indiana, Georgia, and who knows where else, that mercury from power plants is simply not the problem environmentalists are making it out to be. In each state, she acknowledged she was there on behalf of CEED.

Dr. Charnley's mission to Idaho occurred on March 2, 2006, a week before her Medscape paper was posted. It is possible, or course, that she had no financial relationship with coal producers and users until after she completed the paper, which was likely paid for by corporate funds, channeled through the American Council on Science and Health. But I'd like to see Medscape clarify the conflict of interest disclosure on that paper.

Then, in June 2006, Dr. Charnley testified on the same issue in Pennsylvania. There she told a state senate committee that she "was not representing any organization." But just two months earlier she had traveled to Idaho on behalf of the coal industry, and she continued to work for the polluters throughout 2007. She may not have been representing the coal industry in her testimony that day, but if she was working for the industry on the very same issue (but not on that particular day), I think she should have disclosed it to that Pennsylvania senate committee.

Something's fishy here, and it isn't the mercury. If there is a US Senate confirmation hearing, these are questions that need to be raised.

Returning one last time to the Washington Post's account, there is some good news â essentially that whomever is picked by the current administration may have a short tenure:

Recruiting candidates for CPSC chairman has been difficult for the administration. A nominee for chairman has to survive a Senate confirmation, and if approved, face the prospect of having to step down soon after if Democrats win the White House in November.

The CPSC needs strong leadership to revitalize this important agency. It needs to re-earn the trust of America's parents. If it is true that President Bush is considering offering the chairmanship to a scientist who has been working for the tobacco industry and some of our worst polluters, then he should back off and stop toying with the agency.

Congress must tell the President that the country will be better off waiting for the next President to begin the rebuilding.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

UPDATE (2/14): The Washington Post has put up a clarification of the article cited above:

A Jan. 26 Business article on potential nominees for head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission said researchers Gail Charnley and Jacqueline Patterson wrote a letter to a technical journal about a study that they had co-authored without disclosing that the study had been funded partly by pesticide makers. However, the authors disclosed their funding when the original article was published in 2003 in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. Then in 2004, Charnley and Patterson wrote a separate letter to the editor of a different journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, responding to critics of the original article. In their first draft of the 2004 letter to the editor, the researchers said that they had no financial conflict of interest because they were no longer receiving any funding from the pesticide industry. The editor of the journal suggested that because the letter related to their previous article, which had been partially funded by industry, they should disclose the previous funding again. The authors agreed, and the 2004 letter to the editor ran with the following disclosure above their signatures: "The article by Charnley and Patterson (2003) was partially supported by the pesticide industry, which wanted an independent review of its studies. Because they did not receive payment for writing this letter, the authors declare they have no competing financial interests."

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This is entirely consistent with the way the Bush administration has made other appointments. Locate someone completely at odds with the goals and mandate of an agency, then put them in charge of it.