Whistleblowers responsible for completing chemical risk assessments have come forward with allegations that their reports have been and continue to be “improperly altered to completely eliminate or minimize risk calculations,” according to a complaint filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) on behalf of four scientists who work in EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP).
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the complaint is that these issues have persisted across multiple administrations. According to PEER, “our clients attest that the problems in OCSPP are not due solely to the Trump Administration and its appointees. The issues faced by our clients occurred prior to Trump taking office, throughout the Trump years, and continue under the current administration.”
Amendments made in 2016 to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) require EPA to complete risk assessments for existing and new chemicals prior to manufacture or import into the U.S. to ensure worker and consumer safety.
According to PEER, “(t)he request for investigation filed on behalf of four EPA scientists with EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) charges that civil service managers, both during and after the Trump administration, routinely accessed complete risk assessments to:
- Delete language identifying potential adverse effects, including developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, mutagenicity, and/or carcinogenicity;
- Significantly revise report conclusions to indicate that there are no toxicity concerns despite significant data to the contrary; and
- Reassign risk assessments to inexperienced employees in order to secure their agreement to remove issues whose inclusion would be protective of human health.”
Due to the altered reports, the resulting safety data sheets (SDSs) are missing important information needed to adequately protect workers as well as emergency responders and the environment, including:
- Chemical hazard information;
- Proper handling procedures;
- Personal protective equipment;
- Accidental release response measures;
- First aid; and
- Firefighting measures.
The whistleblowers’ allegations are supported by “dozens of internal emails with supervisors, meeting summaries, and other documents,” according to The Intercept.
“Together, the evidence they provided shows a pattern in which the EPA failed to follow the law that oversees chemical regulation, particularly (TSCA), and depicts a workplace in which EPA staffers regularly faced retribution for following the science,” according to The Intercept. “The four EPA staff members, who hold doctorates in toxicology, chemistry, biochemistry, and medicinal chemistry, said that they told colleagues and supervisors within the agency about the interference with their work. Each of the scientists also filed complaints with either the EPA’s inspector general or the Office of Science Integrity.”
After months of inactivity in response to their internal complaints, the scientists felt they had no other option except to make their complaints public, according to The Intercept.
“These alterations of risk assessments are not just artifacts of the Trump administration; they are continuing on a weekly basis,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, in the PEER press release. “All of these altered assessments need to be pulled back and corrected in order to protect both workers handling chemicals and the American public.”
“EPA’s lack of accountability for scientific misconduct poses a direct danger to public health,” added Bennett, whose organization is calling for the removal of those civil service managers found responsible by the (OIG). “Inside EPA, scientific integrity has become an oxymoron and a cure will require a complete overhaul.”
In a separate analysis conducted by PEER, the organization concluded that EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policies fail to protect scientists and offer no punishment for violations.
The PEER analysis identifies three key areas of weakness:
- No prescribed penalties for violators, coupled with the lack of any reference to these offenses in agencies’ official Tables of Penalties. Some agencies, in fact, prohibit scientific integrity review panels from even recommending sanctions for violators;
- Lack of clear application of the policies to political appointees even though their main goal is to prevent political manipulation or suppression of science. This gap is glaring in that political appointees are a major source of any political pressure; and
- Failure to provide any meaningful legal protections for scientists whose findings clash with agency positions or who express differing scientific opinions.
“The current toothless policies protect neither science nor scientists,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse in the PEER analysis press release, pointing out that it is hard to find a single case of a manager or political appointee being punished in the decade since these scientific integrity policies were created. “If there is no penalty for violation, why have these policies?”