From plastics to flame retardants, the ubiquitous chemicals of our daily lives have raised public health concerns like never before. Inside the Beltway, however, data-crunching scientists are often no match for industry lobbyists and corporate lawyers. The exception, no doubt, is Linda Birnbaum, the toxicologist who leads, two little-known scientific agencies, the National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS)and the National Toxicology Program(NTP).
Last April, Birnbaum sat inside a Capitol Hill conference room packed with poker-faced chemical industry executives ready for a showdown. The NTP had recently issued its report on carcinogens—a sort of name-and-shame list of chemicals on which no company wants to find its products. Charles Maresca of the Small Business Administration—taking a stand for the malignedstyrene industry—argued that the report was “based on inaccurate scientific information” and faulty peer review.
North Carolina congressman Brad Miller (D) was unimpressed. He took the microphone and described Birnbaum’s resume of more than 700 publications in public health, toxicology and environmental science. Removing his black reading glasses, he glanced at Maresca, and delivered the fatal blow with relish: “And you’re a lawyer. Isn’t that right?”