By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
Citing a potential “public relations nightmare,” the Trump administration successfully stopped the publication of a study measuring the health effects of a group of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water and household products throughout the United States. Many of the contaminated sites are on military bases across the country and affect military families directly. Multiple Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the censorship and have called for the report to be released, and Trump administration officials are scrambling to contain the political fallout.
The two email chains (here and here) show the exchanges among White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Defense (DoD) attempting to strong-arm the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) into censoring the report. The emails were released to UCS by the EPA as part of a larger request under the Freedom of Information Act for documents related to an attempt to restrict the types of science that are used in EPA public health protection decisions (the EPA subsequently tried to bury the documents).
Politico broke the story on Monday:
Scott Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis, after one Trump administration aide warned it would cause a “public relations nightmare,” newly disclosed emails reveal.
The intervention early this year — not previously disclosed — came as HHS’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was preparing to publish its assessment of a class of toxic chemicals that has contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia.
The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.
Nancy Beck, one of the EPA political appointees with ties to the chemical industry involved in the effort to prevent the study from being released, knows very well how one agency can put pressure on another. She helped the Department of Defense slow down EPA efforts to protect drinking water from perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, when she worked in the White House under President George W. Bush.
Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the cover-up and demanded the ATSDR report be released, including Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Representative Mike Turner(R-OH), Representative Bryan Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and several Democratic senators including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito questioned embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in a Senate hearing today about the EPA’s actions. Administrator Pruitt refused to take responsibility for slowing down the release of the study, but acknowledged that it is important for this kind of health information to be public. West Virginia has had specific problems with PFAS contamination.
This kind of congressional oversight of the administration is crucial as part of our system of government, the checks and balances the founding fathers talked about. Executive branch actions have direct consequences for public health and the environment. We desperately need more congressional scrutiny of the ways in which science is being suppressed and sidelined in executive branch agencies.
And at least in this case, the pressure is working. According to Inside EPA (paywalled), ATSDR has subsequently begun preparations for releasing the report. Below are more details about this developing story.
What are these chemicals?
“PFAS” stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” “PFOS” and “PFOA,” the two most studied PFAS, stand for “perfluorooctane sulfanate” and “perfluorooctanoic acid,” respectively. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals found in many consumer products (such as non-stick cookware and water-repellent clothing) as well as in firefighting foam used by the military. Studies on PFOA and PFOS have indicated links to cancer, thyroid disease, and immunological effects. Here’s the EPA’s current FAQ on PFAS.
What are more specific health effects?
According to ASTDR, studies have shown certain PFAS may impact fertility; increase cholesterol; elevate cancer risk; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; and negatively affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children.
What is the current EPA guidance on the issue?
In May 2016, EPA established drinking water health advisories of 70 parts per trillion for the combined concentrations of PFOS and PFOA. This number is important because in “PFAS CDC Study 2,” an employee of the White House Office of Management and Budget was worried about the fact that ATSDR’s numbers for minimal risk for some populations went as low as 12 ppt. For more, see EPA’s factsheet on PFAS.
What’s the DoD connection?
The Department of Defense emerges in many PFAS water source contamination stories because DoD’s firefighting foam contains PFOS and PFOA. The Politico story notes that in a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where test of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines. These facilities have caused congressional concern and the Government Accountability Office has studied the issue.
How has the EPA approached PFAS?
Administrator Pruitt has publicly said that he wants to make controlling PFAS a priority and has planned a leadership summit on the issue next week. The summit was planned after the Senate refused to confirm Michael Dourson, President Trump’s nominee to lead EPA’s chemical safety division. North Carolina’s two Republican senators refused to support him for PFAS-related reasons; Dourson’s previous work for the chemical industry recommended dramatically higher “safe” levels of the chemicals than the EPA had found (more here and here).
What do the two emails show?
In mid-January, an email chain with EPA political and career employees discussed a call between EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) about PFAS. Both the political and career employees noted that EPA and ATSDR did not entirely agree on the science.
In a January 30 internal email chain, White House OMB political appointee Jim Herz flagged a message from an unidentified White House intergovernmental affairs official for EPA political appointee and Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves that ATSDR’s draft Toxicological Profile for four PFAS (PFOS, PFOA, PFHX, and PFNA) had very low Minimal Risk Level numbers. The White House intergovernmental affairs official noted that ATSDR’s release of its draft would have a “huge” response, that the impact to EPA and the Department of Defense would be “extremely painful,” and that releasing the draft would be a “potential public relations nightmare.”
The White House message was forwarded to three EPA political appointees: chief of staff Ryan Jackson, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development Richard Yamada; and Nancy Beck. Jackson noted that the ATSDR estimate is 10 times lower than the EPA’s numbers; Beck recommended OMB interagency review; Yamada noted that ORD was going to DoD to discuss. More than three months later, ATSDR still has not released its draft Toxicological Profile, and the agency initially said there are no plans to release it.
How should legitimate scientific disagreements between EPA and ATSDR scientists be handled?
Scientists may or may not agree with the ATSDR analysis. But there’s no way to critique a peer-reviewed study that isn’t public. Further, any legitimate disagreements should be handled among scientists, not negotiated among political appointees.
The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has a role to play in ensuring that agencies talk to one another. But it has also been used to try to alter science for political reasons. UCS has recommended that peer-reviewed scientific documents be shared publicly when sent to OMB for interagency review. The PFAS case is evidence for why this kind of policy is sorely needed.