Sunday, February 27, 2005

Hocus Pocus Filiocus!

How the adminstration does science these days: a sort of a magical recipe with the eye of the Newt and the wallet of the corporation all thrown into a pot with lots of religious broth. Here, you can taste the result:

Ten members of the Food and Drug Administration advisory panel who voted that a group of powerful pain killers should continue to be sold had ties to the drug makers, an advocacy group says. A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest indicates that 10 of the 32 panel members had ties to either Pfizer Inc. or Merck & Co., ranging from consulting fees and speaking honoraria to research support.

The FDA issued a statement saying it screened members of the panel for conflicts of interest. "This transparent process requires the agency to carefully weigh any potential financial interest with the need for essential scientific expertise in order to protect and advance the public health," the agency said.

Hard to find wingnuts who wouldn't be taking naps in the lint-lined back pockets of pharmaceutical companies, of course. We all understand.

And then there is this new "science" about how mercury is really quite innocent:

House Resources Committee chair Richard Pombo, R-Calif. -- longtime bete noire of the environmental community -- seems to have cooked up some fishy science in a report released last week titled "Mercury in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury" [PDF].

The report -- written not by scientists but rather by aides to Pombo and another member of his committee, Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. -- aims to downplay the overwhelming evidence that mercury from coal-burning power plants poses a significant health risk to Americans. Two of the report's claims are particularly stunning, as science journalist Chris C. Mooney points out. One: "There has been no credible evidence of harm to pregnant women or their unborn children from regular consumption of fish." And two: "Current, peer-reviewed scientific literature does not show any link between U.S. power plant emissions and mercury in fish."

The report ignores reams of data indicating that mercury disrupts fetal development and can cause learning and memory disabilities in children, as well as recent research linking mercury exposure to increased risk of cardiac problems in adults. And it gives short shrift to the well-established fact that coal-burning power plants are the major industrial source of mercury pollution in the U.S.

The national controversy over mercury pollution, having simmered for more than a year, will finally come to a boil on March 15, when the Bush EPA is legally required to finalize its rule determining how rigorously the toxic pollutant will be regulated. The first draft of the rule, published in January 2004, was roundly criticized by dozens of members of Congress, public health advocates, and environmental groups for being notably weaker than a rule proposed during the Clinton administration.

The Clinton-era proposal would have required mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants to be aggressively reduced using the best technology available on the market -- or, as the wonks put it, maximum achievable control technology (MACT) -- which would slash emissions by as much as 90 percent within a year, starting in 2008. In contrast, the Bush administration's draft rule proposes a cap-and-trade program requiring smaller and slower reductions of 70 percent from 2005 levels by 2018. And critics argue that these results would not be fully achieved until 2025, due to the nature of the market-based trading system.

The Pombo-Gibbons report argues in favor of the Bush administration's mercury-reduction plan, just in time to feed the heated tussle expected to break out in coming weeks as the final rule is released. "The report is essentially a preemptive strike," said John Walke, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group that sued the EPA over delays on its mercury rule and forced it to comply with a March 15 deadline.

According to Walke, the report repeatedly references data from industry-funded groups such as the Edison Electric Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute, the latter a "quasi-scientific body that has repackaged the basic talking points that the utility industry has been relying on for years," he said. Walke accuses congressional Republicans of trying to drum up "wildly off-base claims about mercury just to make EPA's abominable rule look good by comparison."

Odd. Wasn't it just a few months ago that the FDA told pregnant women to avoid eating tuna and various other fish? Never mind, it's all too much to absorb, except perhaps the mercury.