When Scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that chemical trichlorethylene (TCE) causes fetal heart defects, even at low doses, White House officials say exceeded their conclusions – a blatant example of political interference in science and a violation of the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) submitted a formal complaint to the EPA, urging the agency’s scientific integrity office to investigate.
UCS is no stranger to such tactics. For decades we have followed inappropriate political interference in science-based decision making, and we have followed the recommendations of the Trump administration attacks on science for more than three years. However, few examples better show the extent of the interference of this administration than the following: careful and calculated erasure of officials of scientists’ efforts to protect the country’s youngest infants.
But what exactly happened, and why is such political interference a problem?
White House rewrote risk assessment for toxic chemical
Scientists have known for decades that TCE is dangerous. In large doses, the chemical – an odorous liquid used in degreasers, lubricants and stain removers – has been linked to a range of devastating health effects, including cancer of the liver, kidneys and testes; leukemia and lymphoma; and immune diseases like lupus.
The industry easily explains these links. The Halogenated Solvent Industry Alliance (HSIA), a trade association that represents manufacturers and users of TCE, praises the “long history of safe use“and calls her links to cancer”wrong. “Meanwhile, Westlake Chemical Corp., a manufacturer of TCE in the United States, emphasizes that It is “chronic overexposure” that causes these diseases, not ordinary low dose exposure (the kind of low doses found, for example, in Drinking water for 14 million Americans).
But scientists also have long identified serious consequences of moo levels exposure – the most alarming, fetal heart defects. In 2003, a landmark study found that even minute amounts of TCE caused “heart defects” in developing rat embryos, such as missing arteries and valve defects. Since then, more than one dozen animal studies corroborated these conclusions, and epidemiological research suggests that TCE also causes these faults in humans. In 2011, the EPA conducted its own toxicological review and ultimately proposed a ban on several uses of TCE.
As part of President Trump’s EPA, these proposed bans were buried, but the scientists persevered. In December 2019, the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) conducted a risk of draft assessment of the TCE, which used fetal heart defects as a benchmark to determine dangerous exposure levels. Since the heart defect “is the most sensitive effect,” he says, “it is expected that risk management for this effect would address other identified risks.”
But this draft assessment was never made public.
A survey by Reveal describes what happened to him and how things went wrong, namely when the document reached the President’s Executive Office (EOP) of the White House. APE send regularly its reviews to other agencies for review, but the âreviewâ of the EOP was far from routine: In unsigned emails and anonymous edits, EOP officials asked EPA scientists to dismiss science on the role of TCE in fetal heart defects.
The version edited by EOP pays tribute to the link of TCE with heart defects, but notes “uncertainties which diminish the confidence of the EPA in this endpoint”. The best bet, continues the new version, is to rely on immunosuppression, or the weakened immune system, as a benchmark for âunreasonable riskâ.
However, the exposure levels at which TCE induces immunosuppression are almost 500 times higher that levels found to trigger congenital heart defects. In other words, the EOP changes echo a common industry argument: TCE could be linked to poor health outcomes, but only at very high or chronic exposures. To cement this reversal, the White House removed each of the 322 uses by scientists of the term “cardiac toxicity” and multiplied the mentions of “immunosuppression” by more than 30 times.
We are not sure who orchestrated these changes, but we do have our suspicions. Nancy Beck, a former lobbyist for one of the chemical industry’s largest trade associations, began working at the EPA during the Trump administration. There she worked to disentangle regulations for a series of hazardous chemicals, IQ retardant PBDEs (“Are [these] disturbances really unfavorable? “) to carcinogenic arsenic (“There didn’t seem to be agreement on the risks to human health from low dose exposures â). In June 2019, Beck was quietly detailed to the White House office which – just months later – overturned the scientists’ conclusions in the TCE assessment.
On February 21, 2020, the OCSPP âformal risk assessment – which included the White House reviews – was released for public comment. It underwent a four-day peer review in late March, despite calls to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public commentators criticized the assessment: Scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund highlighted that experts had “re-examined and reaffirmed” TCE’s link to heart abnormalities, and David Michaels, epidemiologist and former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, criticized the EPA for assuming workers exposed to TCE were wearing protective equipment. Many don’t, he said, doing the assessment âFundamentally, fatally flawed.“
UCS reported this scientific integrity violation to the EPA
EPA, like many agencies, has a Scientific integrity policy which protects government science from political interference. When scientific integrity is violated, government employees or the public can report these incidents, and that is exactly what we have done. Earlier this month, we officially reported this violation to the EPA. In our complaint we wrote:
According to the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, it is essential “that scientific information and the processes upon which policy-making is based exhibit scientific integrity, quality, rigor and objectivity” and that ” politicians or others [do] not to suppress or alter scientific discoveries. EOP’s direct changes to the risk assessment by EPA scientists violate these provisions. They demonstrate that this scientific work was not “Free from political interference or personal motives,” which EPA scientists could not “represent [their] own work in a fair and precise manner â, and that scientists could not âAvoid conflicts of interest and guarantee impartialityâ. The White House changes nullify the expertise and independence of these scientists and directly oppose the EPA’s policy of scientific integrity.
By interfering in science, the White House endangers public health
Politicians can influence and make political decisions – it’s their job, for better or for worse. But this work does not and should not extend to science, integrity and independence including protecting public health and preserving public confidence. Risk assessments are no exception. The EPA’s chemical risk assessments help determine whether, how, and to what extent a chemical could threaten human health, and whether the EPA should control or discontinue its use and manufacture. It is therefore crucial that these assessments are based on the best available scientific data.
For TCE, the influence of this assessment will be enormous. The chemical is still widely used in consumer and industrial settings, and it persists even where use has declined. This seeps into groundwater and contaminates the drinking water of millions Americans. It was found on 1,400 military bases and almost 800 Superfund sites, and babies born to mothers who live near TCE-emitting facilities are increased risk of congenital heart defects. By burying the science on the danger of TCE, the EPA not only enables its continued use, but also dulls future efforts to restrict, ban, or enforce more stringent safety thresholds for TCE. And for sites that are already contaminated, the assessment creates the regulatory scaffolding to protect the industry from huge responsibility of cleaning.
We urge the EPA’s Office of Scientific Integrity to correct this wrong. When policymakers deform science in deference to the needs of industry, public health suffers – especially the health of the nation. the most vulnerable. We all deserve better.
Researcher investigator Taryn MacKinney
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