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Inquiry: White House delaying chemical tests

The Bush administration is undermining the EPA's ability to determine health dangers of toxic chemicals by letting nonscientists have a bigger say, congressional investigators report.
Image: Ryan and Samantha Vanausdall working at their Elkhorn Cleaners business
Dry cleaners in California, such as this service in Sacramento, must phase out using the chemical perchloroethylene within two years due to health concerns. The chemical is one of several cited in a new report criticizing delays in federal EPA assessments.Randy Pench / Zuma Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration is undermining the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to determine health dangers of toxic chemicals by letting nonscientists have a bigger — often secret — say, congressional investigators say in a report obtained by The Associated Press.

The administration’s decision to give the Defense Department and other agencies an early role in the process adds to years of delay in acting on harmful chemicals and jeopardizes the program’s credibility, the Government Accountability Office concluded.

At issue is the EPA’s screening of chemicals used in everything from household products to rocket fuel to determine if they pose serious risk of cancer or other illnesses.

A new review process begun by the White House in 2004 is adding more speed bumps for EPA scientists, the GAO said in its report, which will be the subject of a Senate Environment Committee hearing Tuesday. A formal policy effectively doubling the number of steps was adopted two weeks ago.

Cancer risk assessments for nearly a dozen major chemicals are now years overdue, the GAO said, blaming the new multiagency reviews for some of the delay. The EPA, for example, had promised to prepare assessments on 10 major toxic chemicals for external peer review by the end of 2007, but only two reached that stage.

GAO investigators said extensive involvement by EPA managers, White House budget officials and other agencies has eroded the independence of EPA scientists charged with determining the health risks posed by chemicals.

The Pentagon, the Energy Department, NASA and other agencies — all of which could be severely affected by EPA risk findings — are being allowed to participate “at almost every step in the assessment process,” said the GAO.

Those agencies, their private contractors and manufacturers of the chemicals face restrictions and major cleanup requirements, depending on the EPA’s scientific determinations.

“By law the EPA must protect our families from dangerous chemicals,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the Senate committee’s chairman. “Instead, they’re protecting the chemical companies.”

The EPA’s risk assessment process “never was perfect,” Boxer said in an interview Monday. “But at least it put the scientists up front. Now the scientists are being shunted aside.”

'Black box of secrecy' criticized
The GAO said many of the deliberations over risks posed by specific chemicals “occur in what amounts to a black box” of secrecy because the White House claims they are private executive branch deliberations.

Such secrecy “reduces the credibility of the ... assessments and hinders the EPA’s ability to manage them,” the GAO report said.

The White House said the GAO is wrong in suggesting that the EPA has lost control in assessing the health risks posed by toxic chemicals.

“Only EPA has the authority to finalize an EPA assessment,” Kevin F. Neyland, deputy administrator of the White House budget office’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote in response to the GAO. He called the interagency process “a dialogue that helps to ensure the quality” of the reviews.

One EPA scientist with extensive knowledge of the changes in the agency’s risk assessment policies ridiculed the claim that the EPA still has the final say.

“Unless there is concurrence by other agencies, ... things don’t go forward. It means we stop what we are doing,” said the scientist, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of endangering his career.

“The (EPA) scientists feel as if they have lost complete control of the process, that it’s been taken over by the White House and that they’re calling the shots,” the scientist said.

The GAO investigation focused on the EPA’s computerized database, known as IRIS — the Integrated Risk Information System. It contains data on the human health effects of exposure to some 540 toxic chemicals in the environment. New chemicals are being proposed constantly for inclusion under a complicated assessment process that can take five years or more.

After years of stops and starts, the GAO said, the EPA has yet to determine carcinogen risks for a number of major chemicals such as:

  • Naphthalene, a chemical used in rocket fuel and manufacturing a wide range of commercial products, including mothballs, dyes and insecticides. It is a major source of contamination at many military bases. The EPA wants to determine if it should be reclassified from a “possible” to “likely” human carcinogen. A long-standing dispute with the Pentagon over the chemical prompted the White House in 2004 to initiate a new EPA policy requiring more interagency involvement in assessing the health risks of a chemical. “Six years after the naphthalene assessment began, it is now back at the drafting stage,” said the GAO.
  • Trichloroethylene, or TCE, a widely used industrial degreasing agent and a common contaminant in air, soil and both surface and ground water. The EPA in 2001 issued a draft assessment that TCE is “highly likely to produce cancer in humans.” Interagency reviews have concluded more outside studies are needed. “Ten years after EPA started ... the TCE assessment is back at the draft development stage,” the GAO said.
  • Perchloroethylene, or “perc,” a chemical widely used in dry cleaning fabrics, degreasing metal and making chemical products. The EPA began its risk review of perc a decade ago and an interagency review was completed two years ago. Since then the assessment has been in limbo because of a dispute among senior EPA officials over what the cancer risk assessment should be. The dispute has prevented the proposed assessment from being forwarded to the National Academy of Science for peer review.
  • Formaldehyde, a colorless, flammable gas used to make plywood and other building materials, which the EPA has been reviewing since 1997 to determine if should be upgraded from a “probable” to a “known” carcinogen. The EPA does not expect to complete that review for another two years.
  • Royal Demolition Explosive, or RDX, a chemical explosive used in munitions and classified as a possible human carcinogen. The chemical is known to leach from soil to groundwater. The EPA began a risk assessment of the chemical in 2000 but has made minimal progress, the GAO said.

Environmentalists say these chemicals have been widely found at military bases and Superfund sites and in soil, lakes, streams and groundwater.

The findings, after an 18-month investigation by the congressional watchdog agency, come at a time of growing criticism from members of Congress and health and environmental advocates over alleged political interference in the government’s science activities.

Last week, a confidential survey by an advocacy group of EPA scientists showed more than half of the 1,600 respondents worried about political pressure in their work.