An EPO spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the changes, but defended her efforts to recruit scientists from another part of the agency to revise the rule.
PFBS is a replacement for a related chemical, PFOS, that was used in Scotchguard and military firefighting foam for decades before phasing out in the mid-2000s. PFBS has been used in foam, carpeting, and food packaging for military fire fighting, but independent scientists say it may not be much safer than the toxin it replaces. It has been linked to thyroid, kidney, and reproductive problems with very low exposure.
While the new assessment is a scientific document, not a regulatory one, the changes in question open the door for state and federal regulators to set potentially less stringent cleaning standards, drinking water limits, and other standards.
The broader class of PFAS, to which PFOS belongs, has been used in everything from dirt-repellent carpets to Teflon to popcorn bags for the microwave. It is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, immune effects, and other health problems. The chemicals are contaminating the drinking water supplies of an estimated 200 million Americans, according to an analysis by the nonprofit environmental working group.
Trump administration officials at the EPA have vowed to aggressively address PFAS and promote a multi-tier PFAS action plan. However, they have fought legislature efforts to speed up work on a federal drinking water limit for the chemicals, and in 2018 POLITICO reported that White House officials were trying to block a CDC assessment that found it was doing a lot lower exposure than the EPA deemed safe and called it “a PR nightmare”.
The PFBS assessment has been in the works for more than three years and has been a particular concern for the Department of Defense facing massive cleanup liability.
The EPA’s draft assessment, published for public comment in November 2018, took the standardized approach of providing a single number that describes how toxic the chemical is to humans, known as the “reference dose”. Regulators can then use this number to calculate a safety limit for different populations – for example, pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems.
The final assessment, sent to the White House for review Monday, replaces that single reference dose value with a series of values, the sources said. This was done by staff in the agency’s pesticides bureau at the direction of political officials – not professional scientists at EPA who specialize in assessing the health risks of chemicals.
EPA spokeswoman Molly Bock defended this reassignment, saying it was “routine” to consult with other parts of the agency.
‘This collaboration is important as other program offices have information and expertise that can improve the scientific quality of the work product under review. This is in line with the EPA’s PFAS Action Plan, the first multi-media, cross-program office plan to address one emerging contaminants of concern, “she said.
However, the changes were so alarming that some of the EPA scientists who worked on the study for years asked to have their names removed from the document, two of the sources said.
Environmentalists say the range approach would allow industrial, state and local officials to “dial” the number they like best, regardless of whether it is protective enough.
“The industry dream has always been to have a range of values so you can really choose anywhere within that range,” said Betsy Southerland, a former top EPA scientist who joined the agency in 2016 on health assessment for two other PFAS -Chemicals headed.
The new range of reference doses in the final assessment contains slightly weaker values than the EPA proposed in their draft assessment in November 2018, two of the sources said. The most alarming part, however, is not the numbers themselves, as the conclusion is still that PFBS is dangerous with very low exposure. Rather, it is the fact that political officials turned the scientific process upside down in order to get to them.
“It’s not orders of magnitude, but it doesn’t matter. How important is it when you get a drop or two of cyanide?” Said the source, a senior EPA scientist.
In a similar move late last week, the Trump administration set a new hurdle for environmental health audits with a new mandate from the powerful Office of Administration and Budget, which is based in the White House.
On Friday, OMB ordered the agency’s gold-standard health assessments to be subject to a White House review – a process that environmental and public health advocates say is adding policy interference to documents that are purely scientific and already peer-reviewed were subjected.
The mandate, sent by OMB to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a POLITICO-reviewed memo, restores a process that was carried out under the administration of George W. Bush Government guards found “Limits the credibility” of assessments from the EPA’s first risk assessment program, the Integrated Risk Information System. The IRIS program has been a primary target for the chemical industry for years, Republicans on Capitol Hill and Trump’s EPA research director David Dunlap in his previous role as a chemical expert at Koch Industries.
The PFBS assessment is the first to go through the newly commissioned White House review, and the sources believe it is superficial and primarily aimed at setting a precedent. The evaluation could already be completed on Wednesday.
“It is not necessary that these documents be checked politically,” said Genna Reed of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “By and large, it is an opportunity for political officials to meddle with information, weaken science, and play off uncertainty.”
OMB spokesman Edie Heipel defended the move, saying it was “not controversial to ensure good science unless you fear your work will not stand up to scrutiny by other scientists across government.”
These latest moves come after EPO Administrator Andrew Wheeler passed a comprehensive regulation last week that limits the agency’s ability to rely on scientific studies that don’t publish all of the underlying data – a requirement that proponents of the public say Healthcare agencies will make it difficult for the agency to use research on the health effects of toxic chemicals on humans.
Of course, the incoming Biden administration is expected to attempt to undo many of these steps. Have environmental groups lawsuit already filed try to break the scientific transparency rule last week. However, critics of the move say it will take time to relax, leaving health and safety gaps in the meantime.