Hear how politics beat science on chemical research

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy arrives to testifiy at an oversight hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the EPA's proposed carbon pollution standards for existing power plants in July of 2014. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

As the Center and Reveal reported recently, assessments of potentially dangerous chemicals by the Environmental Protection Agency are at a standstill.

Our reporter David Heath sat down with Reveal, a new public radio show from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, to talk about where this impasse comes from, and how the Obama administration has fallen short on the issue. 

Al Letson: When you think of hot button political issues scientific integrity probably doesn't make your list, but it was a priority for Barack Obama. During his first presidential campaign Obama promised he wouldn't let politics interfere with science. He repeated that pledge when he became president.

Pres. Obama: Let's be clear, promoting science isn't just about providing resources it's also about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about letting scientists do their jobs free from manipulation or coercion and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient, especially when it's inconvenient.

Al Letson: When Obama took office there was already a big problem at the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the EPA's jobs is to determine which chemicals can make us sick. Then it has to decide what needs to be done to protect the public from those chemicals. That can mean new regulations. But regulations can eat into the profits of chemical companies. So those companies have a financial interests in stopping them. That's where politics come into play. The Obama administration had big plans to get politics out of the process, but like a lot of good intentions, well... you know where they lead. Here's David Heath with the Center for Public Integrity to tell us what happened. David.

David Heath: Hi Al.

Al Letson: Hey man, walk me through this.

David Heath: To understand what happened you have to understand how the EPA decides which chemicals can make us sick. To do that the EPA scientists start by reviewing the science. Then comes the hard part. They actually have to calculate how much of a toxic chemical we can be exposed to before it gives us cancer.

Al Letson: How did they do that?

David Heath: It's actually not very easy because you can't just give somebody a toxic chemical and see if it makes them sick. The EPA scientists have to rely on things like animal studies or studies of people who are exposed to very high levels of a toxin, such as factory workers.

Al Letson: That sounds tricky if you can only use, test animals and people that have been exposed to high levels of this stuff.

David Heath: That's right, and the chemical industry uses that fact to create doubt. And that's a strategy that was actually pioneered by the tobacco industry, that is to argue that because there's uncertainty in the science the products are in fact safe. During the Bush administration the industry actually had support for this in the White House. Congressional investigators found that the Bush White House put many of the EPA scientific findings on hold. In fact investigators said the delays were so endless that the scientific research being done at the EPA was virtually obsolete. Things would go over to the Bush administration and they'd ask a bunch of questions and they'd have to go back and start all over again.

Al Letson: Let me get this straight, during the Bush administration the EPA would send reports to the White House. The White House would then look at these reports and as a delay tactic ask questions that then made the EPA go back and restart the whole process over again.

David Heath: Right.

Al Letson: Obama comes into power and what changes?

David Heath: Obama knew of this and the Obama administration came in with a plan to fix it. And that called basically for doing many more chemicals assessments and to do them a lot faster. But that plan has actually failed. In the last three years the EPA has actually done fewer chemical assessments than ever before.

Al Letson: Now why is that? If Obama comes in with the idea of moving this forward, how is it that we've done less?

David Heath: It all comes down to tactics by the chemical industry. Before they could rely on the White House to block these assessments. But then when Obama took office they really had to turn to Republicans in Congress. Of course until the last election Republicans didn't have control of Congress so they couldn't pass legislation. But there were other ways that these Republicans could exert control over the EPA. Let me give you an example of that. David Vitter, a senator from Louisiana, delayed a formaldehyde assessment by threatening to block a key EPA appointment. That assessment had been on the works since 1998 and it's still not out.

Al Letson: Since 1998 scientists have been working on assessing formaldehyde, which is a chemical that is pretty common?

David Heath: Formaldehyde is in your kitchen cabinets. It's in some of your shirts. It's everywhere. And the EPA had found that it's linked to leukemia. It's a pretty serious finding. But these results have never been published. The same thing happened with arsenic. In 2011 the EPA had been working on an arsenic assessment, by then for eight years, but Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho put language in a report attached to a spending bill that actually delayed that assessment, and the EPA was just about to say that arsenic was far more deadly than they had previously thought. It can cause cancer at a higher rate than anybody thought.

Al Letson: One of my questions here is: I think that the vast majority of the American public believes that arsenic is a bad chemical and therefore not in a lot of the everyday stuff we use, that the EPA has already done its job and said that arsenic is deadly. And that's just common knowledge, like I figured that the EPA had already stated that. What do they find out about arsenic that made the chemical industry so worried?

David Heath: The EPA scientists were actually going to say that arsenic was 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than they previously thought. What that meant was that even people drinking the legal limit of arsenic in drinking water were likely to get cancer from it. In fact they came up with a calculation that was 730 out of 100,000 people would get cancer from it. Here's what Congressman Simpson said when I asked him how he did it.

Cong. Simpson: We’ve asked for the National Academy of Sciences to review the EPA's science and how they come up with their decisions.

Al Letson: That seems like a perfectly reasonable request. After all the Academy is the nation's premier scientific adviser, right?

David Heath: That's true, but the Academy can also be used to create delays. I asked William Ruckelshaus about this. He ran the EPA under both presidents Nixon and Reagan.

William Ruckelshaus: Anytime that the EPA or any other agencies that has regulatory authority over these kinds of chemicals find something wrong it ought to be immediately published. To the extent that that's delayed or stalled in some way is really incontestable, particularly if it's done on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemical and has economic benefit associated with it. 

David Heath: He said that these delays can actually cost lives.

William Ruckelshaus: The longer you delay it the more roadblocks can be thrown into its control, the higher the risk for the public that something terrible will happen.

Al Letson: The EPA's work on arsenic and formaldehyde is on hold but what about other chemicals?

David Heath: Actually all chemical assessments right now have been delayed. Congressman Simpson acted on behalf of two pesticide companies who make a weed killer containing arsenic. Those companies hired a lobbyist named Charlie Grizzle, who had been a former EPA official and knew the ropes. At the same time he was also working as a lobbyist for the formaldehyde industry. And at the same time he was lobbying against the arsenic assessment, he was lobbying to delay all chemical assessments, about 50 in all. I asked Grizzle about that. Were you behind that formaldehyde language and the committee report?

Charlie Grizzle: We, in the interests of full disclosure we formally represented the Formaldehyde Council and now represent Momentive Specialty Chemicals.

Al Letson: Wait, wait, wait. Obama's EPA is taking orders from chemical industry lobbyist?

David Heath: Effectively they are, yes. This language didn't even appear in the bill, it appeared in a committee report attached to a bill. It's not legally binding. I showed this language to Charles Fox. He's a former EPA official who worked under the Clinton administration.

Charles Fox: This is what we consider advisory language. The agency is not obligated to implement that language in the report but it is, for lack of better word, strongly encouraged to do so. And the agency knows that this language is coming from their appropriations committee. So it is certainly something they will pay attention to.

David Heath: The EPA could have chosen to ignore this?

Charles Fox: Absolutely.

Al Letson: Why didn't the EPA ignore it?

David Heath: That's a really good question. I asked Dr. Kenneth Olden that very thing. He's the person who oversees the office that does these assessments. He took over that job about two years ago and he's won a lot of support from House Republicans and the chemical industry. In fact this year despite congress cutting $60 million from the EPA budget they actually explicitly said that they weren't going to cut any money from Olden's office. I asked Olden why the EPA didn't ignored this language and he said it wasn't his decision.

Dr. Olden: It more or less dealt with a policy issue in the regulatory arena that we don't in fact deal with. That's my position.

David Heath: You're saying that those decisions are actually made in a higher level?

Dr. Olden: David, I stick with my answer.

David Heath: Also, I asked Olden when the EPA was going to complete more of these assessments.

Dr. Olden: It takes more than one year to see a final product, in other words an assessment. If you're building airplanes and it takes 10 years you can't expect to see finished products in three years. We are doing as much as humanly possible and I think the agency is pleased and the scientific community is pleased. I feel good about what we've done.

David Heath: Since Olden came to the EPA in 2012 his office has actually only completed four chemical assessments.

Al Letson: Only four chemical assessments since 2012, what's the EPA been doing?

David Heath: They've really gotten away from the plan that they had put out to do more of these assessments and they really have focused on fulfilling the wishes of the House Republicans.

Al Letson: Specifically what does that entail?

David Heath: One part of it is that they're holding more public meetings. When they do these chemical assessments now they have a meeting so that people can have input into what they're doing.

Al Letson: That sounds good, right? That gives the average Joe a chance to listen in and see exactly how all this is working, correct?

David Heath: True, it sounds good. What's happened is that the industry pays scientists to go to these meetings and so these meetings end up being dominated by industry scientists. The EPA has actually acknowledged this and has come out with a plan to try to bring in more independent voices into these meetings. But I attended one of these public sessions just two weeks after they announced these reforms and every single scientist who made a presentation at that hearing was an industry scientist.

Deborah Proctor: I'm Deborah Proctor, I work for ToxStrategies and my attendance today here has been supported by EPRI, which is Electric Power Research Institute.

John Hays: John Hays, I'm from Summit Toxicology and my work here has been supported by the American Chemistry Council.

Chris Kirman: Chris Kirman from Summit Toxicology through American Chemistry Council.

Mark Harris: I'm Mark Harris with ToxStrategies supported by ACC.

Nancy Beck: This is Nancy Beck from the American Chemistry Council.

David Heath: To give you a sense of what happens at these meetings here's some exchange between Nancy Beck, now she's a scientist with the American Chemistry Council, which is the chemical industry's chief trade association, and a woman, a scientist at the EPA named Catherine Gibbons.

Nancy Beck: I think for these open meetings it'd be really helpful to have these type of information. Not see it the first time in the draft.

David Heath: If you listen closely you'll hear that Beck is actually asking for more delays.

Nancy Beck: ... scientific issues that would be incredibly helpful.

Catherine Gibbons: But I think it's an extremely a laborious process.

Nancy Beck: Right.

Catherine Gibbons: We get a lot of information -­‐

Al Letson: David you spend a couple of years looking into all of these stuff, I'm curious why do you think this is so important? What is it about this story that really grabs you?

David Heath: It's a big issue. After all we're all exposed to toxic chemicals. So if the government is not doing anything, we can get sick from it. We can get cancer from it. And we don't really know exactly how many of these chemicals can possibly make us sick. That is something that has to be decided by scientists doing the research and that's just not happening right now. What's really interesting to me about it is that President Obama made this a top priority and it seems so easily achievable, I mean he didn't have to get approval from Congress to do it. It was really just tweaking the inner workings of a bureaucracy. It seems like a no brainer and yet the administration is just not been able to accomplish this. I guess that they just found that the politics were just so overwhelming.

Al Letson: David Heath from the Center for Public Integrity. Thanks a lot for coming in and talking to us today.

David Heath: Thank you.

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