Leaked audio reveals how chemicals hazardous to human health and the environment are fast-tracked and approved at the Environmental Protection Agency. This week on Intercepted, investigative journalist Sharon Lerner reports on how the chemical industry pressures the EPA to approve chemicals and pesticides that are dangerous to public health. Lerner speaks with whistleblowers from the agency, scientists who say their research has been manipulated by EPA managers to downplay the dangers of chemicals, including extreme cases that fall under the category of “hair on fire.” Lerner also discusses how the agency has approved chemicals and pesticides — at the behest of companies — without proper research into their toxicity, or worse, even though scientists point to the chemicals’ dangers. But this is not new; it follows the long, historical trajectory of the EPA, including the “revolving door” between the agency and the chemical industry.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Roger Hodge: I’m Roger Hodge, deputy editor of The Intercept.
Under the Trump administration, we spent a lot of time reporting about how corrupt political appointees undercut the efforts of the EPA’s dedicated scientists and regulators.
PBS: Big changes at the EPA in the Trump administration. As a candidate, the president vowed to get rid of it in “almost any form” —
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt: We are stripping burdensome costs from the American economy at an unprecedented pace. And we are doing this while inspiring confidence in the American people that it is the government going to work with them as opposed to against them.
CNN: She and two other former EPA administrators, under Republican presidents, sounding the alarm over the Trump administration’s approach to the environment, and its denial of science.
CBS: The Trump administration issued a gag order on the Environmental Protection Agency.
RH: The EPA was especially bad under Trump. But bad policy from the EPA was nothing new. For 51 years, since the EPA’s founding, we’ve seen powerful corporations influence decisions at the agency, sacrificing the public’s health and safety, and poisoning the environment. And now, revelations from inside the agency are giving us an unprecedented view of how exactly that works.
Sharon Lerner: There are five whistleblowers who work or have worked in the division of new Chemicals within the EPA.
RH: That’s Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter with The Intercept.
SL: And they have shared with me information about pressure that they’ve been facing to characterize chemicals as safer than they actually are.
RH: For years, Sharon has been reporting on the EPA, exposing how powerful chemical companies exert influence on the agency. But these recent disclosures are allowing us to take a look behind the scenes at the nuts and bolts of how dangerous chemicals get approved. Sharon’s new reporting focuses on two separate offices inside the EPA, one that regulates pesticides, and one that regulates other chemicals, and shows how scientists are pressured by corporations to approve their products, despite the risks of cancer, birth defects and other diseases. Just recently, Sharon was provided with a trove of documents, including audio recordings from inside the agency, showing how EPA managers were working to veto inconvenient warnings from scientists and to quickly approve new chemicals.
Unnamed EPA Manager: So, going back to the flags again —
Unnamed IT Consultant: Sure.
Unnamed EPA Manager: — is there a way to override it all?
SL: The audio I obtained is of a meeting that took place in November 2020, with an IT consultant who was helping the agency set up their internal systems for tracking chemicals.
EPA IT Consultant: — I said, I need your response. They can actually either override it or say —
SL: So in this meeting, what’s happening is the IT consultant is trying to make their internal systems work smoothly. And the manager is actually saying: Can we have a system that allows us to dismiss the comments of our internal assessors on these particular cases?
EPA Manager: Say there are nine open discussions, but then we suddenly had to expedite a case due to some hair-on-fire situation. Do we need nine people to go in and close out these discussions for it to move forward? Or does is there an all-powerful person, like [censored] that could come in and override everything?
SL: And they come up with this idea of a button, like a little computer button that will override their concerns.
IT Consultant: And if you still think that you want something that actually when you say “override everything,” we turn everything to green, we can do that.
SL: It was really interesting for a number of reasons.
One was that it addressed specifically what people in that division called hair-on-fire cases. These hair-on-fire situations are when a company reaches out to an elected official or directly to the agency and they really ramp up the pressure to assess the chemical and to do it quickly. And you can see that in internal emails, they refer to hair-on-fire, or sometimes HOF. And even within the division of new chemicals, they have a calendar with a rotating HOF or a hair-on-fire duty so a manager can make sure they oversee these particular cases. And it’s very clear to the folks that I’ve been talking to that these efforts are being made at the behest of industry.
EPA Manager: Yes, we’d like a button or something and then we’ll assign whoever that person or persons may be to override everything.
IT Consultant: OK. Override, meaning that this turns to green.
EPA Manager: Yes.
IT Consultant: OK. Perfect.
SL: So the five whistleblowers all work — or did work — within the division of new chemicals, which falls within the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. That office assesses existing chemicals and new chemicals. And then there’s another part of the office that deals with pesticides.
Martin Phillips: I’m one of the whistleblowers in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
SL: That’s Martin Phillips. He’s a chemist and worked as a human health assessor in the new chemicals division.
MP: I helped co-author, with three others, two congressional disclosures talking about manipulation of science in the new chemicals program, as well as bullying and intimidation of staff, and circumvention of worker safety protection.
I have been working at the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics since February of 2019. And I am a chemist, and I’m also a DABT, which is a certified toxicologist.
Sarah Gallagher: I am currently a human health assessor in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
SL: And that’s Sarah Gallagher.
SG: I’ve been in the office since May 2019. I’m a PhD chemist. And I’ve been working as a toxicologist at the EPA for the past five years.
MP: Sarah and I are here participating in this podcast, speaking as private citizens on matters of public concern. This is a very difficult topic for us to talk about, because it touches on our work at the agency, but it is so important that we get the word out about what’s been going on in our program.
SL: So the kinds of concerns that these assessors are pointing out are really scary. So things like cancer and brain damage and developmental toxicity. In one of the chemicals I was writing about, the issue is potentially birth defects, including missing bones, club feet, and extra fingers. So the assessors’ jobs are to protect the public and to suss out whether these chemicals are going to pose a risk to human health and the environment.
Rep. Steny Hoyer: Congress first enacted the Toxic Substance Control Act 40 years ago to protect Americans from the risk posed by chemicals in commerce. It has not been reauthorized since. Since its original Act, the law has become outdated, and efforts to modernize it have been ongoing for several years with great difficulty.
SL: TSCA is the law that pertains to chemical safety and how the EPA assesses chemicals in terms of human health and their impact on the environment as well. And so in 2016, that law was overhauled, right? And that presented a real opportunity. What did you see as the opportunity of the [Frank R.] Lautenberg [Chemical Safety for the 21st Century] Act in 2016?
MP: I saw it as an opportunity to go back and look at existing chemicals and evaluate any hazards or risks stemming from those as well as be more proactive about evaluating new chemicals before they got on the market.
SG: I had a real sense that someone who was important, like a person who was a member of Congress, or a consultant for a company or their lawyer, had called the agency and complained that we had been taking too long in their case. It was mostly about the speed; they wanted to get them out as quickly as possible.
The interference came later, when we were in meetings with managers and we did, at times, hear comments about the fact that the submitters would be upset with the cases. There was one time when I was in a meeting and we had proposed something that two managers didn’t like. And they ended up telling us that they wouldn’t defend us if the agency got complaints from the company that we’d have to go to the meeting and defend it ourselves.
SL: And then in that case, can you tell me a little bit about what your concerns were? What you had found, and what you felt you didn’t want to change? Why did you care so much?
SG: So we were concerned in that case with chemicals, where if you expose a pregnant person or animal, if we’re looking at an animal toxicity study, to a chemical, that there will be some sort of an adverse effect on the fetus. That might include malformations. So if you see people who have deformed limbs after they’ve been exposed to thalidomide, fetal loss, sometimes you see that there are deaths in utero, and we were just getting a lot of questions about all the choices we made.
SL: So you felt that there was reason for concern. And even though your superiors were telling you, well, don’t worry about it, you felt, as a trained scientist, that your concerns were valid?
SG: Oh, I thought I had direct evidence.
SL: And so, in essence, years of training, right, had shown you how to assess this, and you had seen direct evidence of potential harm, and they were saying: Change it.
SG: Yeah. And I said I wouldn’t.
SL: I have read in the disclosure that you guys shared with me that you guys have heard managers in the division on their cell phones, in direct contact with companies that submit these chemicals, and I’m wondering if you can say a little bit about how common it is — how well connected you think managers in the division are to the companies that submit the chemicals.
MP: I can comment on the disparity. I saw many meetings — I was a participant in several meetings — with representatives of the chemical industry, and never once did we meet with a citizen group, with a nonprofit, with any of those types of stakeholders. So it’s not that I’m against meeting with stakeholders, but it needs to be fair and equal access.
SG: I was removed from the program in July 2020. But, while I was there, we routinely were put down in front of our peers. We were being told that we were not good at our job. And I had heard from some colleagues that they really were impacted by what they saw, and it made them feel less confident, or safe to speak out.
We would be instructed to change, and also that people would change things at management’s direction behind our back. So Martin and I would perform the toxicology assessment. And then someone would do the calculations with the exposure numbers to figure out if there were risks, and managers would tell those people to make certain changes. And since, at times, that manager might have a background in toxicology, and their arguments might appear reasonable, people might make those changes. But then we were finding out about these changes after the fact and we could give them five or six reasons why that was wrong.
I would send messages sometimes, explaining to colleagues: Hey, you changed this. Why did you change this? This is wrong. Here’s why. Here’s a link to a journal article. And they just wouldn’t respond. So it was a very unpleasant environment. And you could see it throughout our interactions.
MP: There are probably 80 people who work in the new chemicals program, but not everyone is interchangeable. We each have our own separate areas.
Even though there’s maybe about 80, there were only three human health hazard assessors, when I was in the program, who were reviewing every single incoming case. And when we feel like we can’t have an open and honest conversation, like we can’t bounce ideas off of one another, or go and ask our colleagues for help, when our managers don’t have our backs, when our supervisors are rewriting our reports without even letting us know, that means that things are falling through the cracks. That’s not the kind of collaborative environment that leads to strong science.
SL: We’re also seeing similar problems within the Office of Pesticide Programs. Things work slightly differently in the pesticides program, because they’re using a different law. So the new chemicals go through TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the pesticides go through a law called FIFRA.
So, under TSCA, there’s actually no baseline data that a company is required to provide, which is kind of nuts when you think about it. So, with new chemicals, you can just not have any safety and health information, and you can introduce it! You can actually get it onto market. Interestingly, the law says that, if you have any info on its safety and health, you have to submit it. But the weird kind of upshot of that is that it acts as sort of an incentive not to do research, because if you do do research, you have to submit it. And if you don’t do it, then you don’t.
Under FIFRA with the pesticides, they actually have to submit certain studies. And similarly, what is similar between the two is that there is overwhelming pressure to pass these things with minimal restrictions and get them on to the market. And you have a lot of employees who work in both divisions who go back and forth. And you have a lot of structural similarities.
So a problem with both divisions is the revolving door, which is to say that a lot of people leave the agency and get jobs in industry or come from industry and get jobs at the agency. With the pesticide program, I looked all the way back and found that going back to 1974, every single director of the Office of Pesticide Programs that continued working after they left the agency, in one way or another, for the pesticide industry.
SL: You know, I heard from a number of people that the pesticide companies are just very present at EPA: they’re in the lobby, they’re bopping around, I heard they kind of know all the the names of the people who are actually making decisions and the scientists who are working on their products. And I’ve heard that, for the most part, they’re very helpful and nice. But that is until you do something that pisses them off, and then I’ve also heard that if you get on the wrong side, they will do all they can to get rid of you and to make sure that you are taken off their products.
But in terms of fostering the sort of positive side of the relationship, there are also a lot of what they call “crop tours” and “farm tours,” where companies or individual farms, sometimes pesticide companies, sometimes trade associations, will invite the staff scientists to a farm or to visit and look at how they use pesticides.
EPA Tour: Over the past 25 years, the tour has grown from the North Dakota grain growers to include the corn and soybean associations and other ag groups. They’re educating officials about the things that affect growers the most.
EPA Tour Guide: Having these people out here and showing these people how we use pesticides is a great education tool for them in their future work with labeling of new products, and relabeling of existing products.
SL: And you can see how people would say, well, this is important knowledge. This is what these folks are working on. And yet what I heard from people who went on these tours is that spending the day with these representatives, the manufacturers products that they’re in the middle of assessing, and chatting them up and being friendly and sharing a plate of barbecue with them, that they felt that they were sort of just more sympathetic to the industry point of view just by virtue of hanging out and spending the day informally. And there’s a whole range of them, you can go look at potato farms, and you can go watch how pesticides are sprayed from planes. And it is a way of certainly increasing the intimacy between both sides, the regulator and the regulated.
U.S. Congressman: Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States. [Applause.]
President Richard Nixon: The great question of the ’70s is: Shall we surrender to our surroundings? Or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water? [Applause.]
SL: So the EPA began in part because of a growing outrage in the U.S. over pesticide use.
Speaker: There appears to be growing concern among scientists as to the possibility of dangerous, long-range side effects from the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the public health service to take a closer look at this?
President John F. Kennedy: Yes, I know that they already are. I think particularly, of course, Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.
SL: Rachel Carson came out with her book “Silent Spring” in 1962, which made just a very beautiful case for this idea that’s now pretty widely accepted, but then was really new, which was that these chemicals that have been introduced to kill pests and bugs are actually harming nature in a profound way. And the impact it had and the outrage it sparked on both sides of the aisle helped propel the Nixon administration — so a Republican — to found the EPA. And the first EPA administrator, Ruckelshaus was very bold about saying that the EPA would challenge the industry influence in general, and also in respect to pesticides.
WR: Under this statute, there are two different standards that we have to use in order to determine whether a pesticide should be suspended, or whether it should be cancelled. We are expediting the administrative review of all uses of DDT.
SL: So the EPA got off to a pretty good start, and actually did ban a handful of the pesticides that Carson wrote about in her book. But that progress really began to slow.
William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, was really the first to cut that path from the agency to working for companies that are regulated by the agency. So he went back and forth a couple times. When he wasn’t working at EPA, he also worked for Monsanto, for the American Paper Institute, for the waste-management industry. So he is recognized still, in many ways as a great administrator — and yet, from the very beginning, you see this problem.
So the EPA was formed in 1970. And in the first decade, 12 pesticides were banned. And you see that number go down and down to the point where in the last decade, one was forcibly removed from the market. You have some companies that are voluntarily taking their products off the market, but for the most part, we have stopped forcing them to do so. And at the same time, the EPA’s own numbers show that it is currently managing more than 16,000 pesticide products.
One of the things that the Office of Pesticide Programs does is test products for toxicity. These are things like whether they cause cancer, whether they cause brain damage, and the agency along with regulated companies, so pesticide makers, has come up with these guidelines to waive these tests. What they would say and do say is that this is about saving animals — in part about saving animals. And I’ve written a lot about how that excuse has been used. And you can see in some of their documents, you know, they have pictures of cute puppies when they say they’re saving animals. And in fact, you know, these are tests, mostly done on lab rats.
But, in any case, if you don’t do these tests, there is no replacement for these tests. So these are the tests that are going to find out if the chemicals cause brain damage in humans. Recently, they’ve been waiving these studies. And this is a big savings for industry.
The Office of Pesticide Programs recently realized that they had waived 1,000 toxicity studies. So these are 1,000 studies that could have been done, should have been done, and weren’t. They saw this as a reason for celebration. And I have an email that’s the invite to this party, where “there will be cake,” is what they said. And you can see they actually put the 1,000 and all the zeros are donuts with frosting on them. So this is like: Party! We’re very excited about this! There was also an earlier cake that had the amount of savings to industry written in frosting on the cake.
And I think that when we take a step back and think about this agency that is being paid for with money out of our pockets, taxpayer dollars, to protect human health and the environment, it’s really kind of a shocker to think about the staff of this agency celebrating the waiving of their duties with a dollar amount saved to industry written in frosting.
I would say in many ways the pesticide companies have, over the decades, achieved success from their point of view, in that they’ve kept many chemicals on the market — pesticides — longer than they have been kept on the market in other countries, and longer than many health experts who really understand their effects think they should have been on the market. So basically, they’ve managed to kind of dodge regulatory constraints. And I think that from the internal documents that have emerged from some of the lawsuits around these chemicals, this is exactly what they’re hoping to do, is to prolong the period of time that they can profit from them.
Even when the agency fails to do anything about it, and thus maybe, in the eyes of the chemical company, it can be seen as success, they can’t avoid the reality of it, which is that in many cases, if you’re going to continue these exposures, you do have these outcomes.
With Monsanto, you see huge litigation, very expensive litigation, because we’ve seen with Roundup and glyphosate, that a lot of people think that it caused them to get cancer, and a lot of juries seem to be agreeing with these people. If you look at the overall cost to the companies versus their profits, it ends up being not that significant. And I think that they’re very conscious of how much is worth it, how much liability is tolerable. And even with these huge settlements, it’s still profitable to make a lot of these chemicals.
CBS: A California man dying of cancer just appeared in court claiming a popular weed killer made him sick.
Al-Jazeera: Duane Lee Johnson is suing Monsanto, blaming Roundup for giving him a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
CBS: The 46-year-old blames his 2014 cancer diagnosis on Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate.
SL: The amount that Monsanto spent defending glyphosate is easily more than the entire budget of the Office of Pesticide Programs. So you have this really well-intentioned group of federal employees that are, to varying degrees, trying to actually carry out the law that is supposed to protect us. And, in the end, it is really no match for a company that can spend more than the entire budget of the program. They just have so much more money and, in the end, so much more power. And it’s really hard on every level for the agency and then the individuals within the agency to resist that monumental power.
We’ve already seen a change under Biden, at least in the rhetoric. He’s saying the right thing which, we should remember, Trump didn’t even do that.
President Joseph R. Biden: I’m signing a presidential memorandum making it clear that we will protect our world-class scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research, and speak freely indirectly to me, the Vice President, and the American people.
SL: And Administrator Regan is not an industry shill, you know? He has his heart in the right place from everything he says. And they both have said a lot about valuing scientific integrity, and trying to follow the science, and to basically squelch corruption.
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan: Our priorities for the environment are clear: We will restore the role of science and transparency at EPA, we will support the dedicated and talented career officials, we will move with a sense of urgency on climate change, and we will stand up for environmental justice and equity. We will work transparently and responsibly with industries eager to establish clear, consistent rules of engagement.
SL: So that is all good. But already we know that from this reporting I’ve been doing that the corruption does continue. And I think what we’re learning from these folks at the agency is that it’s not just political appointees. This is not coming from these high-level folks that leave with each administration that are appointed by the President. This is coming from career managers and folks within the agency who have been there a long time and have developed this really intimate connection with industry. And I think the Biden administration has said, again, that they’re really interested in rooting out the corruption. But they’ve also said — Administrator Regan has been really clear — that he wants to be forward-looking, that he wants to just not focus on punishment. And I think that’s where they’re gonna run into some trouble,
MP: To our knowledge, from where Sarah and I sit, we haven’t seen any negative consequences for the people who were involved in the alterations of science.
SL: That’s Martin Phillips, again, one of the whistleblowers from the EPA.
MP: I’m upset! I’m upset that my scientific analysis was deleted or overwritten without my knowledge and without any sort of explanation. That’s not how science works. We have peer review, we consult with one another, but we don’t just use our position of authority to override someone. Everyone has to stand on the merits of their argument — of their scientific argument — based off of facts, based off of reality, and not just based off of where someone sits in a hierarchy.
SG: I was worried that they were creating this precedent where it was going to be allowing even riskier chemicals to be used in greater volumes. And I couldn’t live with myself, if I didn’t say something. And it’s not an easy thing to do, to come out here and be this public about it. But I’m too concerned about the health of the American people. A lot of these are going to have impacts on lower-income communities that end up living at the fence line of some of these factories, people who have pre-existing conditions or susceptibilities, and I just want to make sure that they are considered in our law.
MP: One of the reasons why I’m speaking out is because I think we can’t just keep going along, business as usual, pretending that these chemicals are not having cumulative adverse impacts on human health. We need to fundamentally reshape how we think about environmental protection in the 21st century. But we have to overcome that, and we’re never going to overcome that as long as a small number of players use their positions of authority to just delete things that they find inconvenient.
RH: We reached out to the EPA for comment on these very serious allegations, and the agency provided a statement: “This administration is committed to investigating alleged violations of scientific integrity. It is critical that all EPA decisions are informed by rigorous scientific information and standards. As one of his first acts, Administrator Regan issued a memorandum outlining concrete steps to reinforce the agency’s commitment to science.” The statement continues: “EPA takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity. EPA leadership are reviewing these complaints and any appropriate action will be taken.”
RH: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow Sharon’s reporting at theintercept.com. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of the First Look Institute and The Intercept. This episode was produced by José Olivares. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is the editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next time, I’m Roger Hodge.