What happened: Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directed agency staff to alter certain chemical safety studies in a way that downplayed the chemical’s health risks. EPA officials have pressured staff to alter hazard information, undermine research, and remove scientific information on potentially toxic chemicals.
Why it matters: By interfering with chemical safety studies, EPA officials undermined one of the major ways by which the federal government protects people from exposure to toxic chemicals. Not only does this action violate the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), but it also endangers the health and safety of communities across the US, especially underserved communities.
Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are pressuring agency employees to tamper with the risk assessments of dozens of hazardous chemicals by excluding evidence of adverse health impacts. Reports of deleted language and major revisions in chemical risk assessments against the consent of agency scientists in response to higher management violates the rules and regulations as outlined by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 which states the EPA is required to uphold the “reporting, record-keeping, and testing requirements and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures.”
Four EPA scientists who worked at the agency's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention stated that they had experienced numerous incidents in which management and staff pressured them or their colleagues to alter risk assessments in a way that fell out of line with the best available scientific evidence. In a complaint submitted to the EPA inspector on behalf of the four scientists, these unauthorized interferences include deleted language identifying potential adverse effects of toxic chemicals, major revisions that alter the conclusions of a toxic chemical’s toxicity, and risk assessments being assigned to inexperienced employees to avoid pushback.
One of the four scientists, Elyse Osterweil, detailed instances where she was pressured by management to remove information from animal studies about potentially new toxic chemicals that could prove these new chemicals pose a potential threat to human health. Another scientist, Martin Phillips, was in a similar situation when assessing a chemical compound mixture and found one of the chemicals caused birth defects and induced miscarriage in rats. Though required by law to be reported in the chemical’s safety data sheet, an assessment of this chemical was revised without Phillips’ knowledge and excluded the information on these birth defects.
Another example of these altered assessments includes the evaluation of the health risks of a type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemical. PFAS are a group of chemicals used in the production of protective coatings for products such as furniture, adhesives, and electrical wiring. PFAS exposure has been associated with adverse health effects ranging from decreased infant development to increased cancer risk. However, this is not the first instance of PFAS’ threat to human health being downplayed, as a similar incident was reported in July 2018.
EPA officials altered hazard information, undermined research on potentially toxic chemicals, and failed to adhere to chemical safety requirements under TSCA. The four scientists gave a statement saying that “The entire New Chemicals program operates under an atmosphere of fear — scientists are afraid of retaliation for trying to implement TSCA the way Congress intended,” highlighting the negative impacts these hostile and aggressive work conditions have on scientists. By altering the scientific conclusions to downplay the health risks of chemicals, EPA officials failed to follow the EPA’s mission to “protect human health and environment.” The assessing of chemicals for potential harm is a rigorous process and the TSCA plays a vital role in keeping communities across the US safe from potentially dangerous chemicals. Hence, by undermining this process, the EPA endangered the health and safety of thousands of people.