Toxicology Grad's Role in the Chemical Safety Act
Nancy B. Beck
- PhD, Environmental Toxicology, University of Washington, 1998
- MS, Environmental Toxicology, University of Washington, 1992
- Senior Director, Regulatory Science Policy, Division of Regulatory & Technical Affairs at the American Chemistry Council
- Toxicologist/Risk Assessor, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the White House Office of Management and Budget
- American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow at US Environmental Protection Agency
- Toxicologist/ Public Health Advisor, Washington State Department of Health
Nancy Beck never imagined she would influence policies being made on Capitol Hill when she was a student in the department. A key part of Beck’s current role at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is to actively engage with agencies on proposed policies, procedures, and guidance related to chemical risk assessment. She will focus in the coming year on the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century, signed into law by President Obama on June 22, 2016. The legislation updates the Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976.
Beck is senior director of regulatory policy for ACC’s Division of Regulatory & Technical Affairs.
In this role, she evaluates how chemical risk assessment is approached by regulatory agencies and works closely with ACC members to gather their input. She helps develop official statements that represent input from the broad ACC membership. It’s important to Council members to give input on regulations set by federal agencies, she says, because the government’s assessments are regarded as reliable methods for determining the potential hazards and risks of a given chemical. She looks at how chemicals are assessed in terms of exposures to human health and the environment.
“We’re on the side of science and doing the best analysis of chemicals and their potential risks,” says Beck. She explains that protecting human health and the environment is important and so is preserving innovation.
Based in Washington, D.C., the ACC is a trade association that represents the business and value of chemistry for its member companies. The business of chemistry, reports ACC, is an $801 billion enterprise. ACC calculates that for every job created by the business of chemistry, 6.3 jobs are generated elsewhere in the economy, totaling nearly 6 million jobs.
Beck grew up on Long Island, New York, and received her undergraduate degree in microbiology, with a minor in economics, from Cornell University. She took a job at Estée Lauder, where she worked with chemists to develop preservative systems for products. She also helped develop in vitro tests to replace the Draize rabbit test, a standard toxicity test used for cosmetics, and credits the experience as her “first foray into toxicology.”
In 1990, she moved to Seattle and enrolled in our department’s master’s degree program in Environmental Toxicology. Wanting to better understand molecular biology, Beck continued with her PhD in 1992, and after graduation, she went to work for the Washington State Department of Health. There she evaluated facilities suspected of health concerns. “It was a lot of work with the public, and I loved it,” says Beck.
She knew she wanted to work outside of a lab, and her goal was to work in applied public health. She liked sharing the science behind the issues being discussed and why the science mattered. A Science & Technology Policy Fellowship led her to Washington, D.C. where she worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Many of the fellows of this prestigious program become “the science players on [Capitol] Hill,” explains Beck. She plugged the program as an “awesome opportunity” for students to see how science is being used in developing federal policy.
After the program, she worked for ten years as a toxicologist and risk assessor in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which coordinates regulations among all the federal agencies for the Executive Office of the President. Working under a presidential Executive Order, OIRA ensures that “the benefits of the regulation outweigh the costs.”
Her position had been a newly created one at OIRA. It was because there was a growing need in regulatory agencies, says Beck, for professionals who understand the science and complex issues underlying regulations and the implications of these regulations on public health.
Beck analyzed the science behind major environmental, health and safety regulations and considered the impacts they may have had on other agencies and the public’s health. She also oversaw government-wide initiatives related to Information Quality and best practices for Risk Analysis. She was the only toxicologist in an office of 50 full-time career professionals with graduate training in economics, policy analysis, statistics, public health, epidemiology, engineering and other technical fields. Staffers at OIRA complete about 500-700 regulatory reviews each year.
The broad public health background she received during graduate school--in toxicology, epidemiology, industrial hygiene, and biostatistics--helped “tremendously,” says Beck. She says that it’s important for students to be well rounded and to have a strong background in risk communication, adding that the type of person who does well working in science policy is a person who can see the forest through the trees. While a student is trained in specific fields and has a strong understanding of the details, she says, he or she also has to keep in mind the big picture.
“I couldn’t be doing this job without this skill set,” she says of her work at the ACC.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Nancy Beck