Whistleblowers from within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have come forward to reveal that chemicals which are hazardous to human health and the environment are being fast-tracked and approved at the agency.
Sharon Lerner, an investigative journalist for The Intercept, has reported that the chemical industry has been pressuring the EPA to approve chemicals and pesticides that are harmful to public health.
The Intercept writes: “Lerner also discusses how the agency has approved chemicals and pesticides — at the behest of companies — without proper research into their toxicity, or worse, even though scientists point to the chemicals’ dangers. But this is not new; it follows the long, historical trajectory of the EPA, including the ‘revolving door’ between the agency and the chemical industry.”
Lerner discussed her findings on Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill, a podcast for The Intercept. According to Scahill, “Just recently, Sharon was provided with a trove of documents, including audio recordings from inside the agency, showing how EPA managers were working to veto inconvenient warnings from scientists, and to quickly approve new chemicals.”
Whistleblowers Come Forward With Evidence
Reporting on the EPA’s negligence is based on extensive information provided by four whistleblowers: Elyse Osterweil, Martin Phillips, Sarah Gallagher, and William Irwin. Each of these whistleblowers worked as health hazard assessors in the EPA’s new chemicals division. A fifth whistleblower has since come forward, who is also an EPA risk assessor, but has chosen to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation.
These whistleblowers have turned over documents and a written disclosure, and given interviews, to The Intercept, the EPA inspector general, and several members of Congress.
In several cases, EPA managers have worked together with manufacturers in the chemical industry to fend off safety concerns about chemicals that have been raised by the agency’s own scientists.
On multiple occasions, these managers deleted information about hazards from the EPA’s assessments of chemicals without informing the scientists who wrote the assessments or seeking their consent. The EPA even withheld critical information about the chemicals from the public. Removing information about the health hazards also allowed the EPA to approve these chemicals which otherwise wouldn’t have been allowed on the market.
“The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken,” the whistleblowers’ statement read. “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.”
One whistleblower, Elyse Osterweil, “said she was at first reluctant to speak up about the intense pressure she faced from her supervisors to remove references to potential toxicity from the assessments of new chemicals,” according to The Intercept.
For example, one substance that she was assessing in February of 2021 had been found to have a serious potential for harm after being tested on rats. After being exposed to just one single dose on the chemical, the rats had become lethargic, lost weight, and had difficulty moving. Some even became comatose or died.
“Usually with this type of acute study, there are no effects,” said Osterweil. “So this was a red flag to me that we needed further information.”
Instead of supporting her findings, supervisors pressured her. When Osterweil said during a meeting that she needed more data in order to complete her hazard assessment report, one of her supervisors began questioning her.
“She kept asking me, ‘Look at the data, look at the data, look at it again, tell me what you see,’” Osterweil said. “I knew she wanted me to make the hazards go away, and she even said that: ‘Why don’t you take a look at the actual study data again, and maybe the hazards will go away?’”
Feeling the pressure, the whistleblower seriously considered giving in and marking the chemical safe, even though the evidence didn’t point to that conclusion.
“There was a time when I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should let this one go and just pick my battles,’” Osterweil said. “But I just couldn’t.”
Another whistleblower, William Irwin, who has a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology and three board certifications in toxicology and has worked at the EPA for 12 years, was asked by his supervisors in May of 2020 to sign off on a report which would give a chemical the EPA’s approval to enter the market. He had been working on that project for four months, and was feeling the pressure to sign the document. The problem was, the science did not show that the chemical was safe.
Irwin had concerns about the chemical’s effects on unborn babies. As the manufacturer had not submitted any health studies for their chemical, he had found a structurally similar chemical to help predict the effects.
The Intercept reports: “That compound was bisphenol A, or BPA, an additive to plastics that is well known to cause reproductive problems as well as immune and neurological effects. Irwin had noted his concerns and a lack of studies that could allay them. His work on the assessment, a document that determines if and how a chemical is allowed to be used, also pointed out that workers faced risks from both breathing and touching the chemicals.”
The chemical fell into a category known within Irwin’s division of the EPA as a “hair-on-fire” case, which describes “high-priority situations in which manufacturers object to scientists’ findings that their chemicals pose hazards,” according to The Intercept.
Because of this designation, Irwin’s conclusions were scrutinized and ultimately changed. But the whistleblower refused to sign off on the altered findings, so a higher-ranked employee took over his case.
This employee decided to use a different approach — one that Irwin described as scientifically inappropriate — to allow the EPA to avoid calculating the developmental risks posed by the chemical.
“On June 15, 2020, the agency posted the final risk assessment of the chemical, which minimized risks to the general population and didn’t calculate the risks to workers that Irwin had highlighted,” The Intercept revealed.
Due to confidentiality claims from the manufacturers, Irwin and other whistleblowers felt that they were unable to reveal the names of any of the chemicals that were pushed through the EPA without proper risk assessments.