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Chemical Regulation

US EPA downplays risks of new chemicals, agency scientists say

Whistleblowers ask Congress, inspector general to investigate EPA managers influenced by industry

by Britt E. Erickson
August 6, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 29

Approved stamped on a document being signed with a fountain pen.
Credit: Shutterstock
Scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency claim they were intimidated by managers for refusing to sign off on approvals of new chemicals that raised safety concerns.

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s program for assessing the risks of new commercial chemicals is strongly influenced by industry, making it ineffective at disclosing safety concerns, a group of EPA scientists say in complaints filed with Congress and the agency’s inspector general (IG).

The complaints, filed through the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), claim that EPA managers succumb to pressure from manufacturers and intimidate scientists into approving new chemicals when they have insufficient data to make a safety determination or have hazard concerns.

The scientists allege that career managers, not political appointees, in the EPA’s new chemicals office deleted potential hazards and reassigned risk assessments to inexperienced employees when the scientists refused to sign off on the documents. They claim these actions occurred under multiple administrations and are still happening.

“EPA’s chemical assessment process has itself become contaminated by a cadre of entrenched career managers ignoring science,” Kyla Bennett, PEER’s science policy director and a former scientist and attorney at the EPA, says in a statement. “EPA needs to do what it has never done before—identify and remove” managers responsible for the problem, she says.

On behalf of the whistleblowers, PEER provided emails, text messages, and transcripts to the US House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Aug. 3 in the hope of sparking a congressional investigation. The group filed a complaint with the EPA’s IG in July, asking the office to identify and correct risk assessments that managers altered without the consent of risk assessors.

Richard Denison, a lead senior scientist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), calls the EPA’s new chemicals program a “black box.” For decades, “excessive confidentiality claims and withholding of information from the public have been standard operating procedures” in the program, he noted during a July 28 webinar. “The only parties in the room are EPA and the chemical industry,” Denison said.



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