In yet another 11th-hour rollback of public health protections, political leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency overruled career scientists and watered down a major health assessment for one of the most toxic “forever chemicals” estimated to contaminate the drinking water for nearly 1 million Americans.
Citing agency sources, Politico reported that EPA political appointees changed the reference dose – the level that, if exceeded, poses health risks –for PFBS, part of the family of fluorinated chemicals called PFAS. The change in reference dose from a specific number to a range of levels could allow industry and local and state officials to cherry-pick which to use in setting standards for cleanup of contaminated sites or in setting a drinking water standard.
In November 2018, the EPA released a draft health assessment establishing a reference dose for PFBS, a replacement for PFOS, a chemical linked to a higher risk of cancer, reduced effectiveness of vaccines, reproductive problems and other health hazards. But Politico reported:
[T]he final assessment sent to the White House for review Monday replaces that with a range of values . . . a change made by staffers in the agency's pesticides office at the direction of political officials – not the career scientists at EPA who specialize in assessing the human health risks of chemicals. The alterations were so alarming that several of the career EPA scientists who spent years working on the study have asked that their names be removed from the document.
Betsy Southerland, a former top EPA scientist who worked on health assessments for other PFAS chemicals, told Politico: “The dream of industry has always been a range of values so that you really can choose anywhere within that range.”
The weakened assessment and the range of toxicity values have not been made public. These values could be further weakened while undergoing additional review at the White House Office of Management and Budget, or OMB.
OMB regularly reviews proposed EPA regulations but does not usually weigh in on the independent scientific assessments used to develop those regulations. OMB oversight of the PFBS assessment sets a dangerous precedent for the EPA’s ability to complete impartial scientific research and its ability to regulate toxic chemicals. Greater White House involvement in agency science threatens the independence of those scientific assessments and could dramatically slow down agency work to address chemical risks.
Giving industry and water utility regulators the ability to choose a less stringent number will undoubtedly put vulnerable populations at greater risk, said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.
“The EPA should not be making it easier to expose pregnant women, children and others with serious underlying health problems to this highly toxic chemical,” said Faber. “But at every turn, the Trump EPA has worked hand-in-glove with industry to do exactly that. This 11th-hour action by political officials will add yet one more item to the already long list of anti-health actions the incoming Biden administration will need to reverse.”
On Dec. 9, the EPA finalized a rule making it harder for the agency to enact clean air standards that protect public health and address the climate crisis. And on Dec. 18, the EPA proposed an interim guidance for incineration and disposal of some PFAS compounds that would neither destroy nor contain the chemicals – and would in fact perpetuate the cycle of contamination.