EPA Whistleblowers Allege ‘Atmosphere Of Fear’

21:29 minutes

Earlier this month, four whistleblowers from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) chemical safety office went public with allegations of intimidation and downplayed chemical risks, stating:

“The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken… 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, and they fear that their actions (or inactions) at the direction of management are resulting in harm to human health and the environment.”

John Dankosky spoke with two of the whistleblowers, along with Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter who originally broke this story for The Intercept. As EPA staff, they were not authorized to speak with the press, but chose to participate in this interview as private citizens regarding a matter of public concern.

We contacted the EPA and received the following 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 as Administrator, Administrator Regan issued a memorandum outlining concrete steps to reinforce the agency’s commitment to science. EPA takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity. EPA’s scientific integrity official and scientific integrity team members will thoroughly investigate any allegation of violation of EPA’s scientific integrity policy that they receive and work to safeguard EPA science. Additionally, EPA is currently reviewing agency policies, processes, and practices to ensure that the best available science and data inform Agency decisions. EPA is committed to fostering a culture of evaluation and continuous learning that promotes an open exchange of differing scientific and policy positions. Additionally, retaliation against EPA employees for reporting violations alleged to have occurred will not be tolerated in this administration.   

EPA leadership are reviewing these complaints, and any appropriate action will be taken.”

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Sharon Lerner

Sharon Lerner is a health and environment reporter at The Intercept in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: The official mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment, to keep our air and water clean, and to make sure chemicals in the marketplace are safe.

But for years, the Agency has been plagued by allegations that it’s too cozy with the chemical industry and too quick to approve chemicals that may cause harm to humans. Recently, four scientists at the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention went public as whistleblowers, alleging that the agency has been downplaying the risks of chemicals– Risks like birth defects and cancer– and that dozens of assessments were even altered to make chemicals appear safer than they are.

Earlier this week, Sci Fri News Director John Dankosky spoke with two of the whistleblowers, along with the investigative journalist who broke the story.

Hi John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Hi Ira. Yeah, I spoke with the whistleblowers on Monday. And it’s important to note here that as EPA staff members, they were not authorized to do this interview.

SPEAKER 1: But because of our concern for what is happening, and potential danger to public health, we are speaking today as private citizens regarding a matter of public concern.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That was SPEAKER 1. She’s a human health assessor at the EPA with a PhD in chemistry. She, along with three other scientists, went public earlier this month with their concerns. And they issued a statement to Congress saying, quote, the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken.

And they go on to add this about the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is known as TSCA. They wrote 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. And they fear that their actions or inactions at the direction of management are resulting in harm to human health and the environment. End quote.

Now, Ira, the job of the Chemical Safety Office is to keep us safe from hazardous chemicals, whether they’re in our environment or in our products, like industrial chemicals. Chemicals in cleaning products, in cosmetics.

SPEAKER 1, like the other whistleblower that we’re going to hear from, her job is to review these new chemicals, look at any safety data that exists, and determine how they might affect our health and what levels of exposure are safe.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that certainly is an important job.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and it’s a job that SPEAKER 1 says she takes very seriously.

SPEAKER 1: The reason why I ended up coming forward is because I, like most of the colleagues that I worked for, joined the EPA because we’re passionate about its mission. And I just want to be able to do the best science and to be able to determine whether these chemicals are presenting risk to the workers who are using them, to the general population, to people who might have increased susceptibility. And the intense pressure and bullying that I went through, I was able to put up with it and stand up for the science and what I believed in.

But I was then watching that in some cases, they would go around my back, and an assessment would be revised without my knowledge. Or they would pressure someone who was newer to the program. And I just, I couldn’t watch that happen to the staff that I had worked with and that I respect. And also to the American people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I was also joined by SPEAKER 1, a fellow whistleblower and human health assessor at the Agency, who has a PhD in medicinal chemistry.

SPEAKER 2: I joined the EPA because I also am passionate about public health and chemical safety. I really enjoy working as part of an interdisciplinary team with engineers and exposure scientists and chemists and human toxicologists. And I’m coming forward, again, as a private citizen, because this is a matter of public concern.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Just a note here that both SPEAKER 1 and SPEAKER 2 have been working with an organization called PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. They’ve been helping them navigate the whistleblowing process, including these legal issues, because, Ira, a lot of the documents they worked with included confidential business information.

IRA FLATOW: Certainly a very important story, and we will have more of it after we come back from the break.

When we return, John continues his report and chronicles the events that led these two EPA scientists to go public and how the EPA is supposed to keep us safe from hazardous chemicals.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, here with SciFri News Director John Dankosky, talking about whistleblower allegations that the EPA has been downplaying the risks of new chemicals, making them look safer in ways that could result in harm to our health.

John, in their public statement, the whistleblowers wrote that the system is broken. Well, how is it supposed to work? How is the EPA supposed to keep us safe from new chemicals?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, when a company has a new chemical that it wants to start using, it has to submit it to the EPA with whatever safety-related information that it has. Now that information gets reviewed by the EPA. And they evaluate the various risks, like, say, what might happen to frogs if this chemical ends up in a lake? What happens if it’s released into the air? Will it persist in nature?

Now SPEAKER 1 and SPEAKER 2, their job is to look at how these chemicals affect humans. What do we know about the health risks? What studies have been done? And they come up with an assessment listing any concerns, like will this chemical cause irritation to the eyes? Or has this chemical been linked to birth defects?

But here’s the thing a lot of people don’t realize. A company that wants to start using a new chemical in, say, floss, well, it doesn’t have to submit any safety data if it doesn’t have it.

SHARON LERNER: So we don’t require that companies submit any particular data with their new chemicals as many other countries do.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s Sharon Lerner. She’s the investigative journalist at The Intercept who broke this story. Now Sharon says that if a chemical is submitted with little or no safety data, there is something that a human health assessor like SPEAKER 1 or SPEAKER 2 can do.

SHARON LERNER: If there is no science at all on the actual chemical, what they’ll do sometimes is look at what’s known about similar chemicals that they can then compare to and kind of extrapolate from that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And these are called analogs. This is one area where SPEAKER 1 AND SPEAKER 2 say their assessments got altered to make chemicals look safer. Just one example that Sharon wrote about in her piece, in March of 2020, SPEAKER 1 was looking at a new chemical. And she didn’t have a lot of safety information to go off of, but she determined that it was most closely related to PFOA. That’s something we’ve covered on the show before. PFOA has been linked with various cancers and developmental risks. And it was enough of a concern that back in 2006, several US manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop using and manufacturing it by the year 2015.

So if there’s a new chemical that’s about to go onto the market that’s very similar to PFOA, it stands to reason that it might pose similar risks. And that’s, of course, a concern. So SPEAKER 1 wrote in her assessment that this chemical’s closest analog was PFOA.

But then later on, a supervisor had her assessment altered. Got rid of this comparison to PFOA, which might have set off alarm bells, and instead recommended a much less toxic chemical be used as a reference point, which meant suddenly, this new chemical sounds a whole lot safer.

SPEAKER 2 says this kind of thing happened to him, too.

SPEAKER 2: I, specifically, have had analogs deleted from reports. The analog searches take quite a bit of work. Sometimes we find a really close analog. Some chemical companies make chemicals that only differ by one or two atoms. In other cases, we have to do a really extensive search. It takes a lot of time and resources.

So to do that search, and then do the risk assessment, and then have those analogs deleted and be told, you know, this isn’t appropriate when really it may be a very close match is very frustrating for assessors but also is leading to potential risks being missed or hazards being missed.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And SPEAKER 1 AND SPEAKER 2 describe some other concerning incidents, too. In 2020, SPEAKER 1 was looking at a chemical. And she learned that in experiments with pregnant lab animals, it caused a reduction in fetal weight. But her supervisor asked her to change her assessment in a way that would mean the final safety sheet would contain no mention of possible risks to a human fetus.

SPEAKER 1 refused to make this change. And then a month later, she was transferred to another office.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so do we know what chemical that is?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, see here’s the thing. We don’t know.

Sharon, something that struck me in reading your reporting is that you write about chemicals whose risks have been downplayed, as both of our other guests have said. But you don’t really name the chemicals. You write about a compound that SPEAKER 2 was assessing. It’s a component of cleaning solutions that cause birth defects and miscarriages in experiments with rats, but we don’t know what that compound is. Tell us a bit more about why we don’t have a name for this compound.

SHARON LERNER: Yeah, well, I don’t know what the compound is. And that’s because these folks who we’re talking to are, by law, not allowed to identify them. In many cases, the information, even the companies that make these chemicals, the names of these chemicals, are classified as confidential business information known as CBI.

And because the companies claim that this is intellectual property, and if it were shared it would unfairly cut into their business, we’re not allowed to know this. So I’ve gotten lots of reader responses saying, oh OK, well, this is really important. Now tell us what the chemicals are, and tell us who the companies are. And they can’t tell– You know, they could run into lots of legal trouble if they shared that information.

I think that we all can agree that it is critical that the public has this information. And I think, hopefully, ultimately, we can perhaps get some of the names out there.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So, for instance, in that case, Sharon, we don’t know the name of the compound. We probably don’t even know if it’s on the market right now.

SHARON LERNER: I think we can assume it is. I mean, because we can– What they have sometimes are these unique identifiers, so you can follow the story of a compound, and you can see from the public record when it’s given its final approval. But you just don’t know how to connect it to the name of, its actual name or the company that makes it.

IRA FLATOW: OK, John, the kind of work that SPEAKER 1 and SPEAKER 2 do is pretty sophisticated. Their job is to pick the right analog, decide what an experiment in rats might tell you about the risk to human beings. And you know, you’d expect there to be some subjectivity in that kind of work. I mean, isn’t it possible that these were simple differences of opinion? I mean, that SPEAKER 1 AND SPEAKER 2 saw a high level of risk, where someone else just didn’t?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, that’s possible. But there are a few things here. We have four separate scientists who have gone so far as to go public as whistleblowers, and more who have spoken to share anonymously or after they left the agency to express their concerns. And these alterations that they describe are almost always in one direction, to make a chemical look safer, which is consistent with the rest of Sharon’s reporting.

Now she’s found it’s not just that chemicals can be approved with little or no safety data. But that in another unit within the Chemical Safety Office, the Office of Pesticide Programs, the requirement for toxicity studies is routinely waived, and that this is not just accepted, but it’s sometimes celebrated.

And let me tell you about this. There’s an email that Sharon obtained. It’s from 2018. And it’s inviting staff to the 10th floor conference room to quote celebrate reaching 1,000 studies waived. And Ira, they promised that there would be cake.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, wow.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I know. So scientists like SPEAKER 1 and SPEAKER 2, they’re alleging that there’s a lot of pressure to go along with this.

SPEAKER 1: We started facing this enhanced intimidation and harassment probably around November of 2019. And it got really bad when we all ended up starting to work from home during the pandemic, so around March 2020.

JOHN DANKOSKY: SPEAKER 1 tried bringing her concerns to managers. And sometimes, she says, it seemed like they were listening.

SPEAKER 1: But in the end, it almost became a he said, she said. Or he said, he said or whoever, kind of facing off of two opinions, where I would have written out my assessment based on my understanding of, let’s say, developmental toxicology. And someone would write something that was logically incorrect and didn’t follow widely accepted practices. But then it would ultimately circle back to me being told that I had to just go with what the other proposal was.

And there’s a number of times that I refused.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And then eventually she got transferred to another program.

SPEAKER 1: And, I guess, what really got to me is I submitted a dozen complaints to the Scientific Integrity Office and to managers. And some of those folks who saw some of these complaints were alarmed by what happened, but we weren’t seeing any change. And I have heard from more than one assessor who is still in the program that they have found assessments changed or that they felt uncomfortable speaking their mind.

And I don’t think it’s appropriate that any scientist should ever feel like they’re not allowed to say what they see in the data and provide their professional opinion, and feel that that opinion, if it’s providing the wrong risk picture, could lead to them having some sort of adverse consequence in their career.

IRA FLATOW: So you’ve got intimidation, fear of repercussions. These are, obviously, very serious allegations. But you know, John, it sounds like there are major gaps in this system that’s meant to keep us safe from chemical hazards, even when it’s working the way it was designed to be.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, that’s my takeaway, too, Ira. And I asked SPEAKER 2 about this.

SPEAKER 2, it sounds like from what you and SPEAKER 1 are saying, we’re running a kind of a massive experiment here. The EPA is supposed to keep us safe from chemicals, but chemicals are being released into the environment and included in our products without us necessarily knowing enough about how safe they are. And we’re only finding out about this much later, sometimes after these chemicals cause a problem.

That’s what I’m taking away from some of what you’re saying. Is that right?

SPEAKER 2: It is right, but I’d like to provide some historical context to that. So every chemical that was manufactured or imported prior to 1976 when the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed was automatically grandfathered in. So that includes things like dry cleaning solvents and things like formaldehyde. There’s a lot of chemicals that were already on the market prior to 1976, so those all got a free pass.

And then from 1976 to 2016, new chemicals were being reviewed, but 80% of them were just dropped. So if EPA couldn’t finish the review within 90 days, it was automatically allowed to enter the market.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So what that means is we have thousands of untested chemicals in the market already, but in 2016, Congress amended TSCA. And SPEAKER 2’s take is that this amendment was meant to prevent anything else from going on the market without proper testing. And he thinks if these new rules were followed, we could be confident that the EPA was protecting us from harmful chemicals.

SPEAKER 2: I believe so. I believe that if the Amended Toxic Substances Control Act were implemented as intended by Congress that we could allow innovation and allow new chemicals on the market that don’t pose unreasonable risks, put on restrictions on new chemicals that are needed for our economy with reasonable restrictions to protect human health and safety and the environment, and not allow on chemicals that just aren’t, pose unreasonable risks and just aren’t needed in the same way as some critical chemicals might be.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So SPEAKER 2 seems to have some confidence in these existing laws, but Sharon Lerner, the investigative journalist, has some concerns.

SHARON LERNER: One important criticism of TSCA as it was revised in 2016 was that we did not include a baseline data requirements. And that’s problematic in that you can submit a chemical for approval, as we’ve heard, without providing any information about it. And also companies, if they do have data, are asked to submit what they have, which perversely provides the incentive not to do research into your chemicals, right?

So I would say that even if it’s at its best, that’s a big problem for TSCA that I think many people in the environmental community see with the law as it stands.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

JOHN DANKOSKY: SPEAKER 1, what has happened since you came forward?

SPEAKER 1: We’ve gotten a number of messages of supports from colleagues who are both inside and outside the Office of Toxics. But besides that, I haven’t heard anything from management about this. At this point, I’m assuming they’re allowing the investigation to proceed. And hopefully the Inspector General will start looking into these issues soon, just so we can get to the bottom of it and make sure that we can get these issues corrected.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sharon, and what kind of response have you gotten from the EPA to your reporting?

SHARON LERNER: Well, the EPA has said they take the matter very seriously, that they really value scientific integrity. They did not challenge any of the assertions made in the piece. They did not say that anything was incorrect. And they said that they would investigate.

And I think we’ve heard from Administrator Regan and from President Biden that, repeatedly, that they really value scientific integrity, that they recognize that during the previous administration there were really consequential, really tragic impacts from the departures from the scientific integrity within the EPA in particular, right? Around climate and around chemicals.

So I think it’s great that we’re hearing that. And now what we have to do is see that there is really a proper investigation. And that changes flow from that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And Ira, Congress is looking at this, too. California Representative Ro Khanna chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. He got a copy of this letter from the whistleblowers and provided a statement to The Intercept that read, in part, I will continue to monitor the situation and ensure that these scientists’ concerns are addressed to ensure that toxic or harmful chemicals are not going out to the market without the appropriate health and safety warnings, end quote.

And there’s more this week on the chemical front in Congress, too. The House passed a bill that would set up drinking water standards for those so-called forever chemicals that we talked about before. PFOA and PFOS. They’ve been linked to liver and kidney problems. And the EPA would be directed under this bill to designate these chemicals as hazardous substances.

So it seems Washington is starting to take this stuff pretty seriously. And there’s other good news that the bill passed the House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote. It now goes to the Senate.

IRA FLATOW: Great story, John. Very important. John Dankosky, thank you for sharing it with us.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Thanks so much, Ira. And thanks to our senior producer for podcasts, Ella Fetter, for producing our segment.

IRA FLATOW: And also thanking our guests Sharon Lerner, investigative journalist at The Intercept, as well as SPEAKER 1 and SPEAKER 2, both human health assessors at the EPA. We did contact the EPA for a comment, and they, again, said that they take allegations like this seriously and are committed to investigating.

You can read the full statement up on our website sciencefriday.com/EPA.

Copyright © 2021 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is the former senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produced the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More