An assessment of a pesticide that the Environmental Protection Agency issued last year is fraudulent, according to a complaint the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility submitted to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General today. The complaint accuses senior managers at the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs of omitting “known facts” and issuing false and misleading representations about the science on 1,3-Dichloropropene, or 1,3-D, which Dow AgroSciences, recently rebranded as Corteva Agriscience, sells under the brand name Telone. The complaint alleges that agency staff knowingly ignored studies showing that the pesticide causes cancer. PEER is requesting that the EPA’s inspector general investigate the matter.

The human health risk assessment of Telone, which was published in draft form on February 4, 2020, took the unusual step of downgrading the pesticide’s cancer rating. In 1985, the National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” of the chemical’s carcinogenicity in rats and mice, which developed lung and bladder tumors after exposure. The EPA described the chemical as a probable human carcinogen that same year and went on to confirm that designation in 1996, 2000, and 2005. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of California, and the National Toxicology Program have also repeatedly found Telone to be a “likely human carcinogen.”

But the recent draft assessment characterized Telone as less dangerous. Although the number of studies linking the pesticide to cancer has grown during the intervening years, this time the agency deemed the chemical as having only “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential.”

According to the PEER complaint, the EPA reached this conclusion in part because it omitted the full name of the chemical from a search of the medical literature, using the terms “1,3-D” and “Telone” but not “1,3-Dichloropropene.” As a result, 85 relevant articles were not considered in the assessment, including a 2015 peer-reviewed study that found the chemical induced DNA damage in liver cells in rats. According to PEER, this exclusion led the EPA to incorrectly conclude that Telone is not genotoxic.

“These are not honest mistakes and carry the earmarks of deliberate malfeasance.”

The group also accused the EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee, whose September 2019 report provided the basis for the agency’s finding that Telone is not genotoxic, of inappropriately dismissing evidence that the pesticide caused lung tumors in mice. In the past, the EPA had rejected an argument put forward by Dow scientists that something other than the pesticide caused exposed lab animals to develop cancer. This time, the agency accepted a new, unsupported theory from Dow to exclude lung tumors in mice.

“These are not honest mistakes and carry the earmarks of deliberate malfeasance,” said Tim Whitehouse, PEER’s executive director.

“EPA will fully cooperate with EPA’s Office of Inspector General regarding the complaint submitted by PEER,” a spokesperson for the agency wrote in an email to The Intercept. “EPA stands behind its career scientists and will follow the science and law in accordance with the Biden-Harris administration’s executive orders and other directives in reviewing all of the agency’s actions issued under the previous administration to ensure that they protect public health and the environment.”

The draft assessment as well as the report from the Cancer Assessment Review Committee also failed to consider several studies linking Telone to cancer in humans, as a letter to the EPA from the attorneys general of California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Vermont pointed out in April. Among the research that wasn’t included was a study that documented cases of lymphoma in first responders who cleaned up after a tank truck spilled the pesticide and another that linked exposure to the chemical to pancreatic cancer in agricultural communities.

The downgrading of Telone’s cancer classification paves the way for the reregistration of the pesticide, a process that happens every 15 years and enables the product to remain in use. It also allows the EPA to escape responsibility for conducting a cancer analysis for occupational and dietary harm from the chemical, since the agency is only required to do those analyses for chemicals that are either likely or known carcinogens. Telone’s reregistration was all but completed during the Trump administration and is now awaiting final approval.

While 1,3-D has been banned in Europe for more than a decade due to health and environmental concerns, in the U.S., about 40 million pounds of Telone were used in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. The chemical is released as a vapor into soil to kill bugs, worms, and other organisms before planting carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, grapes, strawberries, and other fruits and vegetables. But the chemical often drifts, posing a danger to surrounding communities.

Yesterday, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment began the process of setting a “safe harbor” level for Telone under Proposition 65, a state law that requires businesses to warn Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer and other health problems. That office has previously argued that the restrictions now in place on Telone — which were set by the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation and overseen in large part by Dow — are not protective enough. It will now undertake its own cancer review of the chemical and use it to set a safety threshold.

The allegations about the EPA’s Telone assessment follow other recent challenges to Trump-era decisions about chemicals. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden announced his intention to review the Trump EPA’s reversal of a decision made during the Obama administration to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Earlier this month, the EPA withdrew the 2018 assessment of a PFAS compound called PFBS, describing it as “compromised by political interference as well as infringement of authorship and the scientific independence of the authors’ conclusions.”

And last week, after the National Academy of Sciences issued a report slamming the methods the Trump administration used to review chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the agency distanced itself from those methods, announcing that the “EPA is not using, and will not again use, the systematic review approach that was reviewed by the Academies.”

While the details of exactly how and why the risk assessment of Telone was compromised, PEER has suggestions for how the EPA inspector general might obtain them. The complaint recommends that investigators ask for the list of attendees at a May 22, 2019, meeting at which the assessment was discussed and “look for meetings between EPA staff and Dow regarding 1,3-D.”

Update: February 25, 2021, 2:25 p.m. ET
This article has been updated with a response from the EPA that was received after publication.