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Muzzling the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, a California pollution watchdog

The state's financial crisis is cited for plans to shut the small state office that gets big results -- perhaps too big.

June 02, 2009|Gina M. Solomon | Gina M. Solomon is a physician and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She is also an associate clinical professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and director of its occupational and environmental medicine residency program.

Under the cloak of the budget crisis, the Schwarzenegger administration is proposing to eliminate an office that has effectively taken on some of California's most insidious polluters, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, or OEHHA. This small, independent office of health scientists contained in the state's Environmental Protection Agency is a strange target if the goal is truly to save money. The total taxpayer bill for the scientists is only a few million dollars, which could easily be funded by tapping a small portion of unspent reserves from existing environmental fees.

So why, then, the proposal to eliminate the office? Here's my guess. The scientists at the OEHHA are charged with protecting, as their website puts it, "public health and the environment by scientific evaluation of risks posed by hazardous substances." In the past, that mission has pitted the OEHHA against a variety of powerful interests, including tobacco and chemical companies. In other words, the office has some powerful enemies.

Take Big Tobacco. The OEHHA was the first agency in the world to declare secondhand smoke to be a breast carcinogen, paving the way for stricter controls on secondhand smoke.

The diesel industry has its own reasons for being unhappy with the agency, which declared diesel exhaust to be a toxic air contaminant, forcing emission control measures that have cleared California's air.

Dow Chemical probably isn't too happy with the OEHHA either. The office is likely to propose listing bisphenol A, or BPA, as a chemical "known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm." Such a listing would mean that products containing BPA, which has been used widely in such things as baby bottles and food cans, would have to be labeled.

And then there is the issue of hexavalent chromium, or hex chrome, a potent human carcinogen. Last fall, the OEHHA finalized a proposal to set a lower safe drinking water level for hex chrome, but the new standard has been held up for months in the governor's office.

Hex chrome gained wide public attention in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich." The true story on which the film was based occurred in Hinkley, Calif., a town in the Mojave Desert with the highest U.S. levels of hex chrome in drinking water. The chemical fouling Hinkley's water came from a Pacific Gas & Electric facility that had contaminated the local groundwater. Brockovich's famous investigation of the high rates of cancer and other diseases in the town -- and the multimillion-dollar legal settlement it spawned -- have not resolved everything. The contaminated plume of groundwater is still there, and it's spreading. It would be expensive for PG&E to clean up this site to a more stringent standard. And because hex chrome is a national issue, polluters across the country would hate to see California adopt stringent regulations that could point the way for other states to take action.

Not all of the OEHHA's foes are external. Even other boards and departments at Cal/EPA might have a motive to see the agency's wings clipped. OEHHA scientists refused to sign off on the Department of Pesticide Regulation assessment of the notoriously toxic fumigant methyl bromide. When the pesticide regulators attempted to circumvent the OEHHA and set standards that wouldn't protect the health of residents living near agricultural fields, the state Court of Appeal ruled in July 2008 that the Department of Pesticide Regulation must consult with the OEHHA before making decisions.

So you get the idea. This is a feisty little office of scientists who conscientiously strive to do their job of scientifically assessing health risks in our air, water, food, soil and consumer products. Sometimes the little guy wins in these David-versus-Goliath fights. But more often he loses, and if the OEHHA gets eliminated, we all lose.

Fortunately, the fight's not over. The Legislature can fix the problem by preserving the OEHHA as an independent office inside Cal/EPA and strengthen it by consolidating other risk assessment functions there. The OEHHA should be funded by its fair share of fees. Polluters must pay, and science must prevail.

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