After paying a Massachusetts consulting firm $1.65 million for help fighting tougher federal regulations on smog pollution, Texas’ environmental agency has decided to renew its contract with the firm for another $1.5 million or so and expand its responsibilities.
In 2013, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hired Gradient to help it build a case questioning the public health benefits of reducing smog levels in Texas cities like Dallas and Houston — benefits that the vast majority of experts say would be significant. While some of that work will roll over into the company's new contract, the firm has also been asked to look into another dangerous pollutant: arsenic.
Arsenic, which has no distinct taste or smell, is widespread in soil and groundwater in much of the world. The increased risk of cancer in humans who drink water, inhale dust or ingest soil contaminated with high levels of inorganic arsenic puts the chemical’s danger level in the same category as that of smoking cigarettes, many scientists say.
Texas will initially pay Gradient up to $200,000 to review an enormous body of research and determine just how likely arsenic contamination might be to cause cancer, and at what level of exposure. Hopefully, the agency says, the review will produce valuable science that can be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
“It’s an issue here, and it’s something that I’m concerned about,” said Texas’ chief toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, noting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed updating its own health standards for arsenic in 2010 but never finished the job. “It’s just been hanging for five years ... It’s really past time to take a look at it,” he said.
The federal health standard for arsenic in public drinking water systems is 10 parts per billion, but many critics argue that number should either be higher or lower. Honeycutt said the state will use Gradient's research to develop its own risk factors and health standard for the chemical, part of a larger effort by the agency to conduct independent research on environmental health risks.
Some researchers who have studied arsenic’s cancer-causing potential believe Gradient is not the right firm to advise Texas on the topic.
“They have a track record of what I would call being experts at distorting scientific evidence on arsenic,” said Allan Smith, a professor emeritus of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley. “How a government agency could want to hire them is, to me, quite startling, and I think a serious error in judgment.”
Smith said he thinks Gradient’s research “always has the same goal in mind — and that is to underestimate risks” of a chemical to public health, or to argue that there’s no risk at all.
“How do you avoid regulation? Well, by having someone do an analysis,” said Peter Infante, who was an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 24 years. “That’s the game that’s played.”
Infante pointed to a 2013 scientific paper that included two Gradient scientists among its authors. The paper downplayed the cancer-causing potential of arsenic at levels below 100 parts per billion in drinking water. (That’s much higher than the current federal health standard of 10, down from 50 during the 1990s.)
The firm has taken similar positions in other publications, and its research on the subject has often been funded by industry groups such as the Arsenic Science Task Force and the Electric Power Research Institute.
“I can’t understand how Texas can hire a group that’s already taken a position on arsenic, giving them $200,000 of taxpayer’s money,” Infante said. “That is not serving in the public interest.”
But Honeycutt and Lorenz Rhomberg, the principal scientist at Gradient who will direct the arsenic research for Texas, said those characterizations are unfair and that the firm has taken no stance on the risks of arsenic.
“We’re at the beginning of this process, and we don’t want to start with any foregone conclusions,” said Rhomberg, a toxicologist who previously worked at the EPA as a biostatistician. “I reserve the right to do something different than [the 2013 paper] if I think the evidence warrants.”
“It’s true that we often have worked for industrial clients on things, and the point there is to bring up the arguments that they think are important,” Rhomberg added. “But it goes back to the arguments” and their individual merits.
Still, Rhomberg added that he does take issue with the EPA’s conclusions on the risks of arsenic that were presented in 2010. Those conclusions suggested that arsenic may be 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than previously believed, but they were never finalized.
“[For] a lot of our work in the past on arsenic, the job was to ... focus on the things we think EPA was overlooking,” Rhomberg said.
That means pointing out the limitations of large, epidemiological studies that the EPA has used to determine arsenic’s risks. Some of those have found alarmingly high cancer risks, but they were conducted overseas in countries with far more arsenic in drinking water.
In the United States, the level of arsenic contamination is much lower. And at these lower doses, Rhomberg said, the studies “by and large, have not found [cancer-causing] effects.”
Another argument often raised by those critical of the EPA’s assessment is that it’s not clear exactly how arsenic binds to protein and causes cancer, or how that would happen at different exposure levels. “There must be a threshold for that,” Rhomberg said, and that’s part of what Gradient might look at in its research for Texas.
Other scientists took issue with both of those points.
“We’re all pretty sure [arsenic] causes cancer” at higher levels such as 100-200 parts per billion in drinking water, said Craig Steinmaus, an associate adjunct professor of epidemiology at U.C. Berkeley. “At levels below that, most reasonable experts will tell you, we just don’t know.”
That lack of knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no risk, and that the government shouldn’t act to protect people, he added. “The question then becomes, do you want to be safe, or do you not want to be safe? It’s all about your frame of mind.”
Smith likens the arguments Gradient has made about arsenic to those made during the battle over the cancer risks of smoking. “We don’t know in detail the mode of action of any cause of human cancer,” he said. “We still don’t know how exactly cigarettes cause lung cancer, but we know they do ... it’s the same for arsenic.”
Infante, who has also worked at the federal Centers for Disease Control, now consults for the EPA and other government agencies. He often testifies on behalf of individuals who believe they were sickened by chemical exposure. Smith said his work on arsenic and cancer in the U.S. has been in the form of research studies, funded mostly by the National Institutes of Health. Steinmaus said he also does work for the state of California but emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of the state.
Honeycutt, Texas’ chief toxicologist, stressed that Texas' extended contract with Gradient came with no preconceived conclusions or biases and that he has full confidence in Gradient’s researchers to be objective.
“Work stands on its own. So the work they do for us, we can review and question them on it,” he said.
The goal is for Gradient to develop an “oral slope factor” that could help determine the risks of arsenic in water, soil and food at different concentrations. Texas would use that number to decide on a health standard for arsenic levels in soil — a big concern in the Lone Star State, where new subdivisions sit on former cotton plantations that used arsenic-laden pesticides. The state hopes to come up with a number during the current fiscal year.
Honeycutt said all that work will be done transparently and submitted for public comment. If anyone has problems with it, he said, “we will take them seriously.”