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Seminar Reviews Public Health Role of Congressional Oversight

By Brian Chorley
January 2010

Paul Jung, M.D.
Jung argued that "oversight is a powerful policy tool." Oversight committees can influence manufacturers and regulatory agencies to improve safety for consumers without passing additional legislation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bruce Androphy, J.D.
NIEHS Deputy Ethics Counselor Bruce Androphy, J.D., foreground, was one of the many staff with interests in policy who turned out to hear Jung. Mary Gant, legislative liaison at the NIEHS Bethesda office, and NIEHS Scientific Director John Pritchard, Ph.D., were also on hand for the talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Birnbaum, above, commented on Jung's discussion of the possible hazards posed by the use of brominated fire retardants on plastic pallets used to store food. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

During an invited lecture on Dec. 15 at NIEHS, Paul Jung, M.D., discussed his experience as a public health investigator for the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce and outlined public health aspects of the congressional oversight process. Jung is a commander in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Hosted by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., his talk was titled "Inspecting the Sausage: Congressional Oversight and Environmental Health."

When he opened his talk, Jung explained his title by referring to the famous Otto von Bismarck quote comparing legislation to sausages - "It's better not to see them made." He then compared the messy process of making laws to the more streamlined process of oversight, which strives to ensure that once Congress enacts laws, they function as intended to serve the general good.

Jung's committee has oversight for much more than energy and commerce

Despite what the name implies, the Committee on Energy and Commerce ( NIEHS oversees a broad jurisdiction. To reflect this, Jung lightheartedly suggested the committee change its name to the "Committee on Health Care, Medicare, Pharmaceuticals, Health, Communications, Wireless Services, Internet, Consumer Protection, Nuclear Regulation, and College Football Bowl Championship Series."

The Committee has been active for over 200 years and is one of the oldest in the House of Representatives. The first article of the constitution gives authority for legislative oversight, and the Committee may use a variety of legal tools including subpoenas, depositions, witness immunity, and even jail time to get the information it needs to carry out its mandate.

Oversight produces direct benefits for consumers

Jung cited some recent cases where the committee influenced procedural change without the need for new federal regulation - using health care examples familiar to the NIEHS research community, including manufacturing with the plastic component bisphenol A (BPA), the operations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), and food-related applications of the brominated flame retardant Deca.

In the case of BPA, the simple act of congressional inquiry resulted in a reexamination of both manufacturing practices and federal action concerning BPA levels in food. Jung explained that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently mandates that BPA - a common component of infant formula can linings - be detected at levels higher than 5 parts per million (ppm). There is mounting evidence, however, that levels below this cutoff could have harmful effects in developing infants and children.

According to Jung, this standard of detection is similar to "measuring the speed of a person's pitch with a speed gun that only measures it if it's greater than 100 miles per hour" - a speed that is difficult for even the best of pitchers.

Following the Committee's inquiry into the use of BPA in infant formula, Jung continued, all four companies agreed to voluntarily remove BPA from their can linings. In addition, the FDA agreed to reassess the BPA threshold.

A long-time advocate of improving public health, Jung stated that the Committee on Energy and Committee is and will continue to be a powerful congressional tool to influence health policy and regulation.

(Brian Chorley, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Environmental Genomics Group.)

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