White House sides with chemical industry against kids, stalls EPA hazard reviews of toxic chemicals indefinitely

Corporate polluters won two big victories recently, but you only heard about one. That was president Obama's decision to block EPA from issuing cleaner smog standards. His decision provoked such outrage across the country that the White House switchboard was jammed by angry callers.

You didn't hear about the second because, according to multiple sources, the White House worked behind the scenes to stop EPA from issuing a hazard assessment of the cancer-causing chemical TCE – and is working to effectively shut down the EPA’s program for assessing the hazards of chemicals – the basis for setting and updating health standards for drinking water, air quality, and clean-up of contaminated soil.   TCE (Trichloroethylene) is a widely-used solvent and is one of the most commonly found chemicals at Superfund sites across the country.  You may recall it was TCE that gave kids leukemia in Woburn, MA and because the subject of a famous book and movie, A Civil Action. 

EPA was set to release its final updated assessment of TCE on Friday, September 2nd, (the same day the Administration blocked EPA from issuing a new health standard for ozone).   The updated assessment concludes that TCE is a known human carcinogen (whether you drink it, breath it, or absorb it through your skin), and causes even more chronic diseases than previously thought. In addition to cancer, TCE has been linked with harmful effects to the central nervous system, kidney, liver, immune system, male reproductive system, and developing fetus.  Because the updated assessment would lay the groundwork for more protective cleanup standards and exposure limits, the chemical industry has fought for more than twenty years to prevent EPA from updating its assessment – along with the Departments of Energy and Defense, which created a lot of those Superfund sites.  Meanwhile, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and the National Academies of Science have consistently endorsed EPA’s updated assessment.  In 2006, the National Academies recommended that EPA finalize its assessment so that efforts to reduce exposure to TCE could be made “expeditiously.”  Friday came and went, but the TCE assessment was not released. The same day draft assessments of two other chemicals – (1,4 dioxane and n-Butanol)  that had been made available for public comment on August 31st were mysteriously rendered “temporarily unavailable”.  

These assessments are conducted by EPA’s IRIS program (IRIS stands for Integrated Risk Information System, which may be why few people are familiar with it). Although it is obscure, the assessments conducted under the IRIS program are extremely important.  They are the scientific foundation for health standards that are set to protect us from pollution in air, drinking water and contaminated soil. Word has begun to circulate that the White House has moved to stop any more IRIS assessments from being released – including for tetrachloroethylene or “perc” which is best known as the cancer-causing chemical commonly used in dry-cleaning, and a new cancer risk estimate for arsenic.  That’s funny, because that’s what the chemical industry and one of its scientists-for-hire demanded earlier this summer in a letter to the White House hatchet man Cass Sunstein, and in testimony before the House Science Committee’s Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee.  That was part of the industry’s campaign to discredit EPA and its scientists by distorting and misrepresenting the findings of a National Academies review of another long-delayed assessment of formaldehyde.  The chemical industry was also apoplectic that a separate Report on Carcinogens from the National Toxicology Program in June concluded that formaldehyde caused cancer, including leukemia, and that styrene was a probable carcinogen (the industry has now sued to overturn the NTP’s finding on styrene). In a beltway journal report [Risk Policy Report – subscription required] today an unnamed industry representative went so far as to brag about the work done “behind the scenes” to pull the strings that stalled the program.

The IRIS program was plagued by political interference throughout the Bush Administration and was sufficiently paralyzed that it was only issuing 2 assessments per year, creating a backlog of hundreds of chemicals requiring initial or updated hazard assessments. A key part of the problem was that the OMB under the Bush Administration inserted itself directly into the IRIS process, and required EPA to submit draft assessments for multiple rounds of review by the White House. The problem was so bad that the Government Accountability Office published a report about it, and designated the program as one at “High Risk” of failure due to the EPA’s inability to issue hazard assessments (the other two federal programs designated as “high risk” by GAO were those for regulating the financial industry and medical devices).  When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson first took office, she began to repair the damage to the IRIS program, and reduce the backlog of chemical assessments.  Issuing the TCE assessment after two decades would be an important step forward toward restoring the program’s credibility and effectiveness.  Maintaining a steady flow of assessments will be even more critical.

The public wants to be protected from exposure to toxic chemicals in the air, the water, and in the products they bring into their homes every day. But it seems that the White House isn’t thinking about health, the environment, or the public, only what the chemical industry and other big polluters are demanding.  Preventing EPA from issuing a final assessment of TCE -- or reverting to the Bush administration’s approach of continual White House interference to block release of assessments or demand weakening changes sought by the chemical industry – would be a deliberate decision to consign America’s children, and the public at large, to prolonged exposure to carcinogens and other toxic substances in their air and water.  In the health realm, it is hard to think of a worse legacy than that.

In the movie, A Civil Action: John Travolta played a lawyer with the swagger and cajones to stand up to W.R. Grace and their phalanx of lawyers and scientists for hire.  He fought to protect public health, the environment and to win justice for innocent children and other citizens of Woburn who were harmed by cancer-causing chemicals in their drinking water.  One would have thought that was a role President Obama and his White House advisors would be eager to play.  Instead, behind closed doors, it appears they have sided with the polluters who continue to this day to fight efforts to strengthen health standards for TCE and hundreds of other toxic chemicals.  Like a really sad movie, it’s enough to make you weep.

About the Authors

Daniel Rosenberg

Senior Attorney, Health & Environment program

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