Guest Opinions

Idaho cancer survivor’s next big fight: Reject this toxic EPA nominee

Some Republicans have already stated that they will not support Michael Dourson’s nomination to a top-tier EPA position.
Some Republicans have already stated that they will not support Michael Dourson’s nomination to a top-tier EPA position. AP file

Cancer is a part of my life and always will be. First because it chose me, and now because I choose to fight it. That is why I am adamantly opposed to Michael Dourson, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with brain cancer. I was 13 years old and I didn’t know if I’d be able to graduate from high school, go to college, get married or grow old. But I fought it. And I beat it.

I didn’t stop fighting there because I know how many other kids’ stories don’t have a happy ending. I created a foundation that works to raise awareness of the growing epidemic of childhood cancer. We made it our mission to help identify and address cancer clusters in the United States — specified areas where more than the expected number of cancers occurs. Such clusters, like the one Erin Brockovich made infamous in California, can arise as a result of environmental pollution, such as groundwater poisoned by carcinogenic chemicals or pesticides when they are improperly used or disposed.

In the small milling and mining town where I grew up, there were five brain cancer diagnoses the same year I was diagnosed. When we notified the state agencies about this alarming occurrence, they turned us away. Apparently our town of 1,700 residents was too small to warrant a cancer cluster study. Like so many other communities throughout our country, we were considered “statistically insignificant.”

This excuse was unacceptable to my mother and to author and researcher Susan Rosser. And to me. In 2009, we took our fight to Washington, meeting with California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the newly named chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, along with the head of the EPA and representatives from the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They were alarmed by the conclusions of our research and agreed that we needed legislation that would give all citizens a seat at the table, where their voices would finally be heard.

A year later, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, a cancer survivor himself, signed on as a Republican co-sponsor of our bill, now named Trevor’s Law. This bipartisan legislation was introduced in January 2011. After a long fight, Trevor’s Law was attached as a standalone bill to the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (TSCA Reform), our nation’s primary chemical safety law. This update was critically important — TSCA hadn’t been updated in more than 40 years and was so fundamentally broken that it prevented our government from banning certain toxic chemicals that have been known carcinogens, like asbestos. President Obama signed both bills on June 22, 2016.

Trevor’s Law mandates that federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and EPA collaborate with state and local governments, academic institutions and the public to identify, investigate and address potential cancer clusters throughout our country. This was an important step toward keeping communities and children safe from toxic chemical exposure. No town would ever again be considered statistically insignificant.

But now the Senate is poised to undo all that progress with a single vote to confirm the nomination of Michael Dourson to run the EPA’s Chemical Safety Office. He’s exactly the wrong person for the job because he’s made a career of downplaying health concerns about tobacco and other harmful chemicals on behalf of his industry clients. Over and over again, Dourson has been hired by companies making or using chemicals tied to cancer, such as 1,4-dioxane, trichloroethylene and perfluorooctanoic acid. He has consistently recommended “safe” levels for his clients’ chemicals that are many times lower than those set by impartial authorities.

Last month I returned to Washington to wage my next fight against cancer, urging my senators to remember that cancer isn’t a partisan issue and chemical safety isn’t either. They must reject Dourson.

It’s the right thing to do for our children who are diagnosed with cancer at a rate of more than 16,000 a year. Let’s stop playing politics with their lives. Call or write to your senators and urge them to reject this toxic nominee.

Trevor Schaefer is a brain cancer survivor, co-founder of the Trevor’s Trek Foundation and the namesake of Trevor’s Law.