President Trump on Monday nominated the controversial toxicologist Michael Dourson, who self-publishes science-inspired Bible books, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s work on chemical safety and pollution prevention.
Dourson “writes books matching science and Biblical text,” according to his Twitter profile on Tuesday afternoon. After BuzzFeed News asked him about this, the profile changed to “writes science-Bible stories.”
Dourson has written a three-book series called Evidence of Faith. The books offer a retelling of famous religious stories, such as the birth of Jesus, using a mashup of fictional conversations, references from the Bible and other religious texts, and scientific discoveries. The most recent book, The Linen Cloths: ...Jesus Left Behind, was published in February. He’s planning a fourth book on Noah and the Great Flood, according to his blog Messiah’s Star.
At the start of each book, he uses similar language to explain how both nature and the Bible guided his narratives.
“First, it is assumed that the natural law (Nature) and the written law (the Bible) have the same dignity and teach the same things in a way that one of them has nothing more and nothing less than the other because they have the same author—God (St. Augustine, 354-430),” he wrote in Linen Cloths.
It also seems that he may read the Bible literally.
“Second, it is assumed that the inspired word of the Bible, in its various translations, reflects what actually happened, but using words that were most appropriate at the time of writing,” he wrote.
Dourson told BuzzFeed News that he writes these books outside of his day job as a toxicologist at the University of Cincinnati and at the nonprofit consulting company Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, a group he founded in 1995 that assesses whether chemicals are safe.
“I do that in my spare time,” Dourson said, before referring additional questions to either the EPA's or the University of Cincinnati's press team.
The EPA noted Dourson's experience working at the agency. He was a scientist there for more than a decade.
“The EPA is calling for the swift confirmation of Mr. Dourson, so the EPA can carry out the Administrator’s agenda to serve the American people,” EPA spokesperson Amy Graham said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News. “Dourson has a proven resume to lead the EPA’s chemical and pesticides office having served multiple positions at EPA, American Board of Toxicology, Society of Toxicology, Society for Risk Analysis, and Toxicology Education Foundation.” (The University of Cincinnati's press team deflected questions to the EPA.)
TERA has close ties to the chemical manufacturing and tobacco industries, according to a 2014 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News. Responding to criticism about conflicts of interest between TERA and its funders in an interview with reporters, Dourson defended himself with a biblical reference.
“Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them,” he said. “We're an independent group that does the best science for all these things. Why should we exclude anyone that needs help?"
Environmentalists remain concerned about Dourson’s close ties to an industry he would help regulate at the EPA.
“We are deeply concerned over the nomination of Michael Dourson to head the toxics office at EPA,” Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in a recent blog post. “Dr. Dourson has extensive, longstanding ties to the chemical industry (as well as earlier ties to the tobacco industry). He also has a history of failing to appropriately address his conflicts of interest.”
According to one example from the EDF blog post, West Virginia hired TERA to organize a health effects expert panel following a massive chemical spill in 2014. Dourson chaired the panel and served as its sole spokesperson. The panel’s resulting report did not disclose that Dourson and TERA had done consulting work for the companies that produced the spilled chemicals.
Trump nominated Dourson to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety And Pollution Prevention. This is one of the top jobs at the agency, overseeing a group that handles pesticides, pollution prevention, and chemical accidents, and decides which chemicals are safe.
The EPA announced the nomination in a press release that included a roundup of praise from people familiar with Dourson. Along with endorsements from five toxicologists, two religious leaders were also quoted.
“My primary context for knowing Michael is at a Christian retreat center where I lecture each summer,” Rev. John Arthur Nunes, president of Concordia College in New York, said in a statement. “For years, Michael’s judicious integration of faith and the sciences has struck me as impressive as it is rare. Far too often the proposal of a relationship between science and religion is viewed with incompatibility at best or with inimicality at worst. Not with Dr. Dourson.”
An executive director of a religious camp cited Dourson’s work on environmental study apparently related to the camp.
“Mike chaired a beach erosion peer review study about 12 years ago. His professionalism and his ability to work with others well allowed him to deal with a very contentious issue at our camp successfully,” said Chip May, executive director of Camp Arcadia in northwest Michigan. “Mike listens well, learns from others, and is able to work with people with different views. I highly recommend Mike for this position.”
Independent toxicologists are more upset about Dourson’s scientific views than his religious ones.
“I don’t have any problem with people bringing moral values, even religious values into risk assessment,” said Adam Finkel, a clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and former director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s health standards program.
Finkel and Dourson worked together years ago on a group that critiqued a set of National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations for calculating chemical risk. (Finkel left the group before it published anything because of disagreements.) The two do not agree on the best methods, Finkel said, with Dourson tending to think that the EPA overestimates risk. This is worrisome, Finkel said, particularly for people most vulnerable to exposure, such as factory workers, children, and the elderly.
From Finkel’s perspective, the most relevant biblical quote to toxicology work is Matthew 25:40: “If you have done good things to the least of my brethren, you’ve done it for me.”
Zahra Hirji is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco
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