Fearing a “public relations nightmare,” the White House and top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked together earlier this year to suppress a federal health study that revealed new evidence about hazardous levels of toxic chemicals in U.S. drinking water.
The study, set to be released by the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS)’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), found that a certain class of chemicals can pose a serious risk to human health at much lower levels than previously thought.
These chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, thyroid diseases, pregnancy complications, and other serious health problems, are present at dangerously high levels in water supplies near chemical plants, military bases, and other sites in multiple states, the study revealed.
Research of this nature would usually be made public as quickly as possible so that it could be used to set new safety standards and inform new policies to protect the health of the American public.
But according to newly revealed internal emails obtained by Politico, the Trump White House feared that revealing the findings would cause a PR disaster and put too much pressure on the EPA, which is already embroiled in numerous scandals, and the Department of Defense, which was identified as a significant source of the toxic pollutants.
So, instead of releasing the report, the White House and the EPA devised a scheme to suppress the findings to avoid having to do anything about the nationwide public health threat.
The coordinated cover-up, which is laid out in the internal emails, spanned multiple agencies and involved key aides at the White House and the EPA, as well as top officials including EPA Director Scott Pruitt’s chief of staff and a chemical industry insider who now oversees the EPA’s chemical safety office.
In the exchanges, agency officials discuss their concerns about having to deal with the reaction to new, stricter standards for drinking water that may be imposed based on the report’s findings.
“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide wrote in an email that was forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, Trump’s appointee for overseeing environmental issues at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Later in the same email, the aide suggested that the administration had tried to convince ATSDR to withhold or otherwise minimize its findings, but that the health agency wouldn’t join in on the scheme.
“The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be,” the email said.
The chemicals, called PFOA and PFOS, were already known to be harmful, but the new research shows that they pose a danger at a level that was previously considered safe.
Widely used by chemical manufacturing plants and for routine exercises at military bases, PFOA and PFOS are “contaminating water systems around the country,” according to Politico.
Their harmful effects have already proven to be costly for manufacturing companies like 3M Co., which paid out more than $1.5 billion alone to settle lawsuits related to water contamination and personal injury claims due to their use of the chemicals.
As Politico pointed out, research showing that the chemicals are more hazardous than previously thought could dramatically increase the cost of cleanups at military bases and chemical manufacturing plants, and would also force companies to take responsibility for using the toxic substances.
Hence, by suppressing the study, the White House and EPA would avoid having to allot government funding for cleanup and water decontamination, while also looking out for their corporate interests by letting companies evade accountability for dumping toxic pollutants into the water supply.
At Pruitt’s EPA, this is business as usual.
Under his direction, the EPA has taken aim at science, scaled back critical environmental regulations, and dismantled fundamental clean air and water mandates. According to Inside Climate News, “Over the past 13 months, Pruitt’s EPA has taken at least 15 major actions on air pollution—all to delay, weaken or repeal protections, and all opposed by the American Lung Association and other health groups.”
Pruitt has also established a pattern of censoring scientific information that might reveal the harmful impact of his policies. Not long after being confirmed as head of the EPA, Pruitt personally approved the removal of references to climate change and climate-related government programs from the EPA’s website.
In March, a leaked EPA memo revealed that the agency had sent employees a list of talking points instructing them to cast doubt on the scientific consensus about climate change. This came just a week after Pruitt announced plans to restrict the EPA’s use of scientific research when writing new environmental rules — a move that two former top EPA officials blasted as an “attack on science.”
This is the culmination of a concerted effort by Pruitt to hollow out the EPA and replace science with special interests. According to an AP analysis, one-third of the 59 new EPA hires it tracked had been registered lobbyists or lawyers for fossil fuel producers, chemical manufacturers or other corporate clients
And as these latest emails reveal, Pruitt’s war on science has very real consequences for the health and safety of Americans. More than three months after the completion of a study that could have major implications for public health, there’s still no indication that the EPA even plans to release the findings.