WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration promised to end political meddling in scientific decisions, but some critics say the White House botched an early test on a key question of public health: how to assess the danger of industrial chemicals.
At issue is a government catalog of toxic substances that guides regulators, industries and the public on the dangers posed by certain chemicals. Environmentalists think the hazards should be assessed solely by scientists free from political influence.
But guidelines issued by the Environmental Protection Agency last month carve out a role for "White House officials" -- which could give presidential aides the ability to influence scientific deliberations.
Critics blame the George W. Bush administration for undermining the EPA's toxic chemical database by delaying the process and injecting its policy preferences.
The database, known as the Integrated Risk Information System, was created in 1985 to provide regulators with reliable scientific information on the risks of exposure. It covers more than 500 chemicals that could affect public health -- including dioxin, perchlorate and formaldehyde.
The Obama administration says the new rules simply allow White House scientists to contribute to the discussion.
But critics say they had hoped President Obama would do more.
"Instead of leaving scientists free to do their work, the Obama administration has invited interference from people interested in politics and economics," said Rena Steinzor, a law professor and chairwoman of the Center for Progressive Reform, which issued a report about the database this week. "The Obama White House has just provided a back door for special-interest obstruction."
"Why would they want to politicize it that way?" asked Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity program with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which had criticized the Bush administration's use of science and has generally lauded Obama's approach.
House and Senate Democrats, including California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who leads the Environment and Public Works Committee, are requesting clarification of the role Obama aides might play in evaluating chemical hazards.
"The ultimate question is whether EPA scientists are controlling this or whether it's the political guys" at the White House, said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of a House science subcommittee.
But Miller and Boxer said that, overall, they were pleased with Obama's rules on the catalog of chemicals. The guidelines, issued May 20, were designed to speed the updating of the database and to require more transparency.
A report released Thursday by Miller's subcommittee charged that, largely because of political influence during the Bush administration, the database had been damaged. The listings do not provide basic information about some of the most common chemical-related health threats, the report says.
The study by the Center for Progressive Reform, a nonprofit that works on health and environmental issues, found that the database lacked current information on a majority of hazardous pollutants, even those Congress identified for quick regulatory action in 1990 -- nearly 20 years ago.
Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office listed White House interference among the factors hampering regulation of toxic chemicals.
John D. Graham, who led the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President George W. Bush, disputed those conclusions. In an e-mail exchange this week, he said flawed EPA scientific protocols deserved a good part of the blame for the delays.
A spokesman for the Obama White House, Kenneth Baer, said the new rules provided transparency as well as a timetable for completing assessments of chemicals. The rules, he said, simply allow scientists, even those in the White House, to contribute to the discussion.
"The rule refers to White House staff who have scientific credentials," he said. Besides, he said, "their comments will be made public. So there is a level of transparency that will guard against the type of outcomes the critics are worried about."
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