Heinz Award winner Deborah Rice’s removal from a federal panel stirred allegations of undue industry input.
An Augusta woman has been chosen to receive a Heinz Award for her research in the field of neurotoxicology and the role toxins can play in damaging people’s health.
Deborah C. Rice, 62, is now a toxicologist with the Environmental and Occupational Health Program in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rice, one of 10 winners nationally, is entitled to $100,000 from the Heinz Family Foundation.
Rice is a former federal scientist who was removed last year from a federal scientific panel that was reviewing the safety of flame-retardant chemicals. She was removed amid charges by the American Chemistry Council that she was not impartial.
Her dismissal led to accusations of undue industry influence within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and led members of Congress and Democratic Gov. John Baldacci to call for an explanation.
“Dr. Deborah Rice is a trailblazer. She discovered that toxins, like mercury in our fish and chemicals in our household products, are making us sick and can even lead to brain damage in our children,” Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation, said in a prepared statement.
“Even though her efforts were fair-minded and detailed, some tried to silence her work. But, thankfully, her courage and the integrity of her research prevailed and her findings will continue to change public policy.”>/p>
The Heinz Awards were established 15 years ago to honor Heinz’s late husband, U.S. Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., and his long-standing commitment to protecting the environment.
Until this year, Heinz Awards recognized individual achievements in five categories: the arts and humanities, the environment, the human condition, public policy, and technology and the economy. This year’s awards focused on achievements in the environmental field.
Paulyn Roman, a Heinz Awards spokeswoman, said Rice is unavailable this week because she is vacationing in Iceland.
However, Roman said, Rice prepared a statement before she left in which she said, “I think that one of the reasons that I was chosen for this award is because of the work I did in Maine to ban the toxic flame retardant decaBDE. Despite strong efforts by the bromine industry, the Maine Legislature understood that this chemical posed a risk particularly to children because it is present in the home environment at unacceptable levels and is known to produce disruption to the developing nervous and endocrine systems.”>/p>
Maine legislators banned decaBDE in 2007, providing an impetus for other states to follow.
Rice also said the American Chemistry Council worked to “discredit me on a national level,” claiming she had a conflict of interest. Rice has maintained that an informed opinion does not represent bias.
After receiving her doctorate in toxicology from the University of Rochester, Rice conducted long-term research to evaluate prolonged, low-dose exposure to lead, methylmercury and PCBs.
Her research showed that early developmental exposure to those contaminants plants seeds for later deficits in cognitive, sensory and motor function.
Rice also did research that led to fish-consumption advisories, which many states use to protect pregnant women against mercury exposure.