J. Bicking/Shutterstock

A Government Scientist Is Being Investigated For Doing Her Job

Science not silence.

23 JAN 2018

In December, government scientist Linda Birnbaum published an editorial about how the US can better regulate toxic chemicals.

Now, Republicans on the House Science Committee are accusing her of "grass roots" lobbying "designed to encourage members of the public to pressure Members of Congress" on legislative matters.


Despite the fact she was just doing her job, Representatives Lamar Smith and Andy Biggs wrote they were "conducting oversight" into Birnbaum's activity in two letters sent to the Inspector General and acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

In her piece, Birnbaum, who is the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, addressed the gaps in regulating the 85,000 chemicals currently approved for use in the U.S.

"US policy has not accounted for evidence that chemicals in widespread use can cause cancer and other chronic diseases, damage reproductive systems, and harm developing brains at low levels of exposure once believed to be harmless," she co-wrote.

Her editorial highlights a recent finding which concluded nine million deaths worldwide are due to diseases caused by the human chemical environment every year.

That's 15 times the number killed in wars.

However, the exact sentence considered "grass roots" lobbying was the one where Birnbaum stated: "closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens — both scientists and non-scientists — work to ensure that our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence."


In their letters, Biggs and Smith argued this sentence directly violates the Anti-Lobbying Act, which disallows "explicit requests for citizens to contact their representatives in support of or opposition to legislation."

However, Birnbaum received zero funding for the editorial and nowhere in the paper does she recommend specific policy, action or legislation beyond being engaged citizens.

Nevertheless, the representatives - who have both received money from industries highly invested in limiting research on chemicals, including endorsements from Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil - accused the government scientist of targeting the general public "to persuade citizens to communicate certain issues to elected representatives."

"I don't see how in any sense it is lobbying," said Andrew Rosenberg from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), who called the accusation "codswallop."

"Science itself is not lobbying. It is reporting on evidence."

And reporting on evidence is exactly what Birnbaum was doing.

Her editorial explains how a chemical oversight system allowed 60,000 chemicals to be registered in the US, mostly without being safety tested.

In turn, many of these chemicals were declared 'safe' around the world.


"Hazardous chemicals enter the environment from the factories where they're made and added to a dizzying array of consumer products - including mattresses, computers, cookware, and plastic baby cups to name a few – and from landfills overflowing with our cast-offs," Birnbaum and her co-author wrote in the study.

"They drift into homes from nearby agricultural fields and taint our drinking water and food. Today, hundreds of industrial chemicals contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested, in the US and beyond."

The editorial was published in PLOS Biology.