By Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
You may have heard recent reports about the White House burying detailed guidance by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to help safely re-open amid the pandemic. The White House and CDC have claimed that the head of the CDC had not given final approval on this important document, but the Associated Press has obtained emails contradicting that assertion.
Among those is an email in which Nancy Beck told the CDC that its guidance document on reopening the country was still under review—just days before the White House suppressed the report altogether.
Beck is the EPA toxics czar who has been detailed to the White House and was recently nominated to become Chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). It’s a key post, with a 7-year term. And CPSC, a small federal agency, has a big responsibility: ensuring that household products including toys, furniture, cleaning products and clothing are safe for consumers, including children.
Nancy Beck is the worst possible choice to run an agency whose job is to protect consumers, and this latest behind-the-curtain glimpse of her White House work fits precisely with how she has operated for years: using her position to stymie career scientists and federal officials; blocking important information from coming to light; or tabling the adoption of needed protections. That method has served the chemical industry well, but not the public.
Beck’s record of failing to protect the public from chemicals that cause cancer, learning disabilities, and birth defects, has not have received the attention it deserved, in part due to the COVID situation. But she now appears to have been part of the White House efforts to suppress scientific information about the pandemic that has disrupted all of our lives and continues to threaten the health of millions of Americans. Beck’s nomination hearing could be scheduled soon, and now she will have even more questions to answer.
Beck, herself a toxicologist, has worked tirelessly to weaken protections from toxic chemicals, and block any effort to advance the public’s understanding of chemicals or establish safeguards from toxic pollution. She served five years as an executive for the trade association that represents Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Exxon and other giant chemical manufacturers. Prior to representing big chemical companies, she worked in the White House of the George W. Bush Administration. She gained notoriety for tying the Environmental Protection Agency in knots—serving as a bottleneck, or chokehold—to prevent the agency from releasing reports that found chemicals pose health problems, even reports and studies that had been through multiple rounds of peer review and public comment.
Beck has spent the last three years as a political appointee—running EPA’s “Office of Chemical Safety.” Since her arrival, Beck has forced EPA staff into policy decisions that are inconsistent with the advice of the agency’s own scientists as well as outside experts.
In one of her first actions, she shelved proposed bans on the use of two toxic solvents—methylene chloride and NMP (n-methylpyrollidone) in paint strippers.Four people died from methylene chloride in paint strippers in the two years after the ban was proposed. Beck also re-wrote pending rules under the Toxic Substances Control Act to ignore major sources of exposure to asbestos and other chemicals when evaluating their potential to harm workers, children and consumers—a move a federal appeals court rejected. And Beck has put workers at risk by requiring EPA’s evaluations to assume that all workers are protected from inhaling or absorbing toxic chemicals by the use of PPE (masks and gloves) 100% of the time, despite repeated criticism from the Agency’s Science Advisory Committee. Criticism from mainstream scientists is not unusual for Beck, her work has been dismissed by the National Academy of Sciences as “fundamentally flawed,” “simplistic,” and “of serious concern.”
Although Beck is being lauded by the Trump Administration and industry lobbyists as qualified to safeguard children because she is a scientist, her bread and butter is not producing original science; but disputing and suppressing the scientific work of others. For example:
- Forcing EPA’s scientists to downplay the health risks—including evidence that exposure is linked to heart defects in babies—posed by the ubiquitous toxic solvent TCE—which is known to have contaminated drinking water at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina—and which some will remember as the chemical that was at the heart of the movie A Civil Action.
- Assisting in suppressing a draft report by the Centers for Disease Control finding that EPA’s current health standard for toxic PFAS chemicals is too weak to protect the public. The White House viewed the report as a “public relations nightmare.” After press attention and a public backlash, the draft was released, but almost a year later, the final version has yet to be published; it continues to languish, “under review” by the White House.
- Pressuring EPA scientists to weaken protections from PFAS chemicals in consumer products that Congress ordered. Beck has done next to nothing at EPA to strengthen protections from PFAS or gather more information about their use, disposal, or sources of exposure, which is in part what prompted Congress to demand actions and set deadlines, on a bipartisan basis.
And when Beck appears before the Senate Commerce Committee for her nomination hearing, Senators will want to carefully scrutinize her possible role in stalling yet another CDC study on potential health effects from PFAS that Congress itself mandated, which remains stuck or “under review” at the White House.
The truth is, there is no need for a hearing on Nancy Beck’s nomination. She is spectacularly unqualified to lead any agency that is charged with protecting public health and safety. Based on her record, which now appears to include helping suppress the CDC’s guidance on COVID-19, Nancy Beck should be disqualified. If her nomination ever comes to a vote, she should be summarily rejected by the Senate.