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politico – Trump’s EPA team quashes career scientists on toxic chemicals

An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the changes, but defended her efforts to bring in scientists from another part of the agency to rewrite the rule.

PFBS replaces a related chemical, PFOS, which was used for decades in Scotchguard and military firefighting foam before being phased out in the mid-2000s. PFBS has been in the fight foam against military fires, carpet and food packaging, but independent scientists say it may not be much safer than the toxin it replaced. It has been linked to thyroid, kidney and reproductive problems at very low levels of exposure.

While the new assessment is a scientific, not a regulatory document, the changes in question open the door for state and federal regulators to potentially set cleaning standards, drinking water limits and other less stringent standards.

The broader class of PFAS, of which PFOS is a part, has been used in everything from stain resistant mats to Teflon to microwave popcorn bags, and is linked to kidney and testicular cancer. , immune effects and other health problems. The chemicals are contaminating the drinking water supplies of around 200 million Americans, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Task Force.

Trump administration officials at EPA have vowed to aggressively tackle PFAS, touting a multi-pronged action plan for PFAS. But they fought against efforts by lawmakers to speed work on a federal drinking water limit for chemicals, and in 2018 POLITICO reported that White House officials sought to block a CDC assessment in concluding that they are dangerous at much lower exposure levels than what the EPA has declared safe, calling it “a public relations nightmare”.

The PFBS assessment has been ongoing for more than three years and has been of particular concern to the Department of Defense, which faces massive cleanup responsibility.

The draft assessment released by the EPA for public comment in November 2018 took the standard approach of providing a single number describing the toxicity of the chemical to humans, called the “reference dose”. Regulators can then use this number to calculate a safe limit for different populations – for example, for pregnant women or people with weakened immune systems.

But the final assessment sent to the White House for review on Monday replaces that single benchmark dose value with a range of values, the sources said, a change made by staff in the agency’s pesticides office under the leadership of policy makers – not career scientists from EPA specializing in human health risk assessment of chemicals.

EPA spokeswoman Molly Bock defended the reassignment, saying it was “routine” to consult with other parts of the agency.

“This collaboration is important because other program offices have information and expertise that can improve the scientific quality of the work product under consideration. This aligns with EPA’s PFAS action plan. , which is the first multi-media, multi-program desktop plan to address a new contaminant of concern, ”she said.

But the changes were so alarming that several of the EPA’s career scientists who spent years working on the study requested that their names be removed from the document, two of the sources said.

Conservationists say the range approach would allow industry and national and local authorities to “pick” which number they prefer, regardless of whether it is sufficiently protective.

“The industry’s dream has always been a range of values ​​so you can really choose anywhere within that range,” said Betsy Southerland, a former EPA scientist who led the agency’s work. on the health assessment of two other PFAS chemicals in 2016.

The new range of benchmark doses in the final assessment includes values ​​slightly lower than those proposed by the EPA in its draft assessment in November 2018, two of the sources said. But the most alarming part isn’t the numbers themselves, they said, as the conclusion is still that PFBS is dangerous at very low levels of exposure. Rather, it is the fact that politicians have turned the scientific process upside down to achieve this.

“These aren’t orders of magnitude, but it’s irrelevant. How much does it matter if 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 threw a new roadblock on environmental health assessments with a new mandate from the powerful Office of Management and Budget, which resides in the White House.

The OMB on Friday ordered that the agency’s benchmark health assessments go through a White House review – a process that environmental and public health advocates say inserts political interference into documents that are purely scientific and have already been peer reviewed.

The order, sent by the OMB to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a memo reviewed by POLITICO, effectively reinstates a process that was in place under the George W. Bush administration, which according to a dog de government guard, “limits the credibility” of the EPA’s main risk assessments assessment program, the integrated risk information system. The IRIS program has for years been a top target for the chemical industry, Republicans on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s EPA research chief David Dunlap in his former role as a chemistry expert at Koch Industries.

The PFBS assessment is the first to go through the newly commissioned White House review, and sources said they expected it to be superficial, primarily aimed at setting a precedent. The assessment could be finalized as early as Wednesday, they said.

“There is no need for a political review of these documents,” said Genna Reed of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is largely an opportunity for policy makers to interfere with information, weaken science and play on uncertainty.”

OMB spokesperson Edie Heipel defended the move, saying there was “nothing controversial about ensuring good science unless you are concerned that your work will not stand up to scrutiny. careful of other government scientists.

The latest moves come after EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler finalized sweeping regulations last week limiting the agency’s ability to rely on scientific studies that do not make all of their data public under- underlying – a requirement that public health advocates say will make the agency’s job more difficult. use research on the effects of toxic chemicals on human health.

Certainly, Biden’s incoming administration should attempt to reverse many of these moves. Environmental groups have already taken legal action to overturn last week’s science-based transparency rule. But critics of the move say it will take some time to unwind, leaving gaps in health and safety in the meantime.

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