The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is preparing to propose safe levels for fluorinated chemicals in drinking water nearly six times more stringent than the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation. But internal emails reveal that the EPA, the Department of Defense and the White House are interfering, fearing a “public relations nightmare” that could follow.
“The public, media and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge,” said an unidentified Trump administration official in a message obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. “The impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful. We [DoD and EPA] cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”
The message, to an unidentified recipient but copied to a political appointee in the White House Office of Management and Budget, and others related to the issue are among 24,000 EPA emails obtained through the FOIA lawsuit. They were first reported today by Politico.
According to the email warning of a “public relations nightmare,” ATSDR Director Patrick Breysse told the EPA the proposed safe levels, but refused to provide a full draft of the proposal or say when it will be published in the Federal Register, a necessary step toward adoption.
Other emails – including one from Nancy Beck, the former chemical industry lobbyist who now heads EPA’s chemical safety office – indicate that the EPA and Pentagon have sought to get the budget office to persuade the ATSDR to allow interagency review of the proposal before it is released. But one EPA official wrote that it “seems like [the ATSDR] want to roll out [the report] and do they (sic) own thing.” The ATSDR is part of the Centers for Disease Control, under the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Unlike Scott Pruitt’s Pollution Protection Agency, there is still one government agency clearly trying to safeguard the public from these dangerous chemicals,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Only Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration would consider reducing drinking water contamination for the American people to be a ‘nightmare.’”
The family of fluorinated chemicals reviewed by ATSDR, known as PFAS chemicals, have been linked to several types of cancer, thyroid disease weakened childhood immunity and other health problems. They contaminate drinking water systems serving 16 million Americans in 33 states, as well as scores of military and industrial sites nationwide.
For almost 20 years, the EPA has dragged its feet on regulating PFAS chemicals, despite reams of evidence that they are hazardous at very low doses. There is no federal legal limit for the chemicals, but the EPA has set a non-enforceable lifetime health advisory level for the two most notorious fluorinated chemicals, PFOA and PFOS.
The EPA’s advisory recommends against drinking water with more than 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, of PFOA and PFOS. But according to the emails, the ATSDR is preparing to publish a draft toxicological profile for those and two other PFAS chemicals that recommends “very, very low” minimal risk levels for the chemicals, ranging from as low as 12 ppt.
The ATSDR defines minimal risk levels as estimates of “the daily human exposure to a hazardous substance that is likely to be without appreciable risk of adverse non-cancer health effects over a specified duration of exposure.”
The agency’s proposal is based on the chemicals’ risk of weakening the immune system, and the recommendation of 12 ppt is almost identical to New Jersey’s recently adopted legal limits for PFOA and another PFAS chemical. Independent research has found that an “approximate safe level” of PFOA and PFOS is even lower, at 1 ppt.
The ATSDR’s minimal risk levels are not legally binding standards, but screening levels intended to identify contaminant levels of concern at hazardous waste sites.
“The significance of the conflict between the ATSDR’s minimal risk level and the EPA’s health advisory is that yet another group of scientists have looked at the evidence and decided that the EPA levels are too high to protect public health,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., an EWG senior scientist.
Update Tuesday May 15, 2018: InsideEPA first reported on EPA’s efforts to block ATSDR’S report last Friday, May 11th.
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