Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency have provided The Intercept with new information showing that senior staff have made chemicals appear safer — sometimes dodging restrictions on their use — by minimizing the estimates of how much is released into the environment.
The EPA gauges the potential risk posed by a chemical using two measures: how toxic the agency considers it and how much of the substance the public will likely be exposed to. Whistleblowers from the EPA’s New Chemicals Division have already provided The Intercept with evidence that managers and other officials were pressuring them to assess chemicals to be less toxic than they actually are — and sometimes removing references to their harms from chemical assessments.
Now new documents, including meeting summaries, internal emails, and screenshots from the EPA’s computer system, along with interviews with whistleblowers and other EPA scientists, show that the agency’s New Chemicals Division has avoided calculating the exposure to — and thus the risk posed by — hundreds of chemicals and have repeatedly resisted calls to change that policy even after scientists have shown that it puts the public at risk.
Call It “Negligible”
Since 1995, the EPA has operated under the assumption that chemicals emitted below certain cutoff levels are safe. Whether a toxic chemical is emitted through the smokestacks of an industrial plant, via leaks in its machinery, or from a leaky landfill into groundwater, the agency requires scientists to quantify the precise risk posed by the chemical only if the release (and thus likely human exposure) reaches certain thresholds. If the releases from both smokestacks and leaks are below the thresholds, the chemical is given a pass. In recent years, however, scientists have shown that some of the chemicals allowed onto the market using this loophole do in fact present a danger, particularly to the people living in “fence-line communities” near industrial plants.
In 2018, several EPA scientists became worried that the use of these exposure thresholds could leave the public vulnerable to health risks. Their concern was heightened by an email that a manager in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics sent in October of that year, instructing the scientists to change the language they used to classify chemicals that were exempted from risk calculation because they were deemed to have low exposure levels. Up to that point, they had described them in reports as “below modeling thresholds.” From then on, the manager explained, the scientists were to include the words “expects to be negligible” — a phrase that implies there’s no reason for concern.
Several scientists who worked on calculating chemical risks believed that there was in fact reason for concern and that the use of the thresholds leaves the public vulnerable to health effects, including cancer. And after being instructed to refer to exposures they hadn’t actually measured or modeled as “negligible,” the scientists proposed dropping or lowering the cutoffs and running the calculations for each individual chemical — a task that would add only minutes to the assessment process. But the managers refused to heed their request, which would have not only changed how chemicals were assessed moving forward but would have also had implications for hundreds of assessments in the past.
“They told us that the use of the thresholds was a policy decision and, as such, we could not simply stop applying them,” one of the scientists who worked in the office explained to The Intercept.
The issue resurfaced in May 2020 when a scientist presented the case of a single chemical the agency was then considering allowing onto the market. Although it fell into the “negligible” category using the cutoffs that had been set decades previously, when the scientists calculated the exposure levels using an alternate EPA model, which is designed to gauge the risk of airborne chemicals, it became clear that the chemical did pose a risk of damaging the human nervous system. The chemical is still going through the approval process.
In February, a small group of scientists reviewed the safety thresholds set by the EPA for all of the 368 new chemicals submitted to the agency in 2020. They found that more than half could pose risks even in cases in which the agency had already described exposure as “negligible” and thus had not calculated specific risk. Again, the scientists brought the exposure threshold issue to the attention of managers in the New Chemicals Division, briefing them on their analysis and requesting that the use of the outdated cutoffs be stopped. But they received no response to their proposal. Seven months later, the thresholds remain in use and the risk posed by chemicals deemed to have low exposure levels is still not being calculated and included in chemical assessments, according to EPA scientists who spoke with The Intercept.
The internal struggles over exposure present yet another example of managers and senior staff working to undermine the agency’s mission, according to the EPA scientists. “Our work on new chemicals often felt like an exercise in finding ways to approve new chemicals rather than reviewing them for approval,” said one of two scientists who filed new disclosures to the EPA inspector general on August 31 about the issue. The detailed account of corruption within the New Chemicals Division that four whistleblowers previously submitted to members of Congress, the EPA inspector general, and The Intercept also included information on the ongoing problems caused by the use of the exposure thresholds.”
“It all comes down to money.”
“It all comes down to money,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, the organization representing the whistleblowers, who pointed out that risk values above the agency’s accepted cutoffs require the EPA to impose limits that may make a chemical harder to use — and sell. “Companies don’t want warning labels, they don’t want restrictions.”
It’s unclear why some senior staff and managers within the EPA’s New Chemicals Division seem to feel an obligation not to burden the companies they regulate with restrictions. “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Bennett, who pointed out that EPA staffers may enhance their post-agency job prospects within the industry if they stay in the good graces of chemical companies. She also noted that managers’ performance within the division is assessed partly based on how many chemicals they approve. “The bean counting is driving their actions,” said Bennett. “The performance metrics should be, how many chemicals did you prevent from going onto the market, rather than how many did you get onto the market.”
In response to questions about this story, the EPA referred The Intercept to a statement it provided for two recent stories based on disclosures from whistleblowers at the agency. That statement said, in part, “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 as Administrator, Administrator Regan issued a memorandum outlining concrete steps to reinforce the agency’s commitment to science.”
Failure to Calculate Cancer Risks
For some chemically induced health problems, such as eye irritation, there may be low levels of exposure that are safe. But the idea that even extremely poisonous substances are harmless in tiny amounts has become complicated since the Swiss scientist Paracelsus first introduced it more than 500 years ago. Cancer is one of the conditions that can result from even minuscule exposures. Since at least 2005, the agency’s cancer guidelines have instructed scientists to assume that there is no safe level of agents that are “DNA-reactive” and have “direct mutagenic activity.”
Yet managers within the New Chemicals Division have inappropriately dismissed the risk of cancer based on the assumption that a chemical would be diluted in the air, according to evidence presented by the whistleblowers. This was the case for at least two chemicals assessed this year. One, which the EPA deemed “not likely to present an unreasonable risk of harm” in March, is used as a component of adhesives. Another, a dialkyl sulfate — part of a class of chemicals known to cause cancer in animals — was one of 13 similar new chemical submissions the agency received between June 2020 and August 2021.
EPA managers took several steps to make the dialkyl sulfate chemical appear safer than it really is, according to one of the disclosures provided to the inspector general in late August. Because they didn’t have sufficient testing of the substance itself, the scientist assessing it chose a closely related compound to gauge its risks. But a manager replaced that analogue, which causes miscarriages in animal experiments, with another, less harmful chemical, which allowed the agency to officially dismiss concerns about harms to the developing human fetus, according to the whistleblowers.
“You don’t always find risk when you look for it. But they’re not even trying.”
Information about exposure was also added to the assessment of the dialkyl sulfate compound without the knowledge of the scientist who wrote it. The assessment calculated that the chemical posed a cancer risk and acknowledged that it might cause genotoxicity, or damage to the genes, which can lead to cancer. But according to a change that a manager in the division made in June without the scientist’s knowledge, genotoxicity is not a concern “due to the dilution of the chemical substance in the media.”
The New Chemicals Program also dismissed the need to assess the cancer risk for the entire class of chemicals on the grounds that they would likely react with water in the air, forming a less toxic compound that would not pose a risk to people in the surrounding community. The whistleblowers disagree, noting evidence that related compounds can remain in the air for at least eight days.
“The Agency is failing to calculate potential cancer risks to the general population based on the fallacy that a chemical is expected to be ‘diluted’ in the air,” they wrote. While the EPA has not officially calculated the potential cancer risk of all the recently submitted chemicals in this class, one of the whistleblowers has done so and found that some of them do pose a significant cancer risk. “You don’t always find risk when you look for it,” the scientist said. “But they’re not even trying.”