EPA scientists found a toxic chemical damages fetal hearts. The Trump White House rewrote their assessment.
By Elizabeth Shogren | February 28, 2020
WASHINGTON – John DeSesso was on a mission when he entered the halls of the Environmental Protection Agency in late September. Inside the ornate limestone building not far from the White House, he met with a dozen EPA scientists and officials.
He had an extraordinary opportunity: to persuade the agency to reject the science linking one of the nation’s most widely used chemical toxins, a solvent known as trichloroethylene, or TCE, to fetal heart defects. Chemical companies and their allies inside the government had been working toward this goal for more than two decades.
For the past 40 years, DeSesso, a biochemist, has held a series of temporary posts, serving as an adjunct professor at half a dozen academic institutions, most recently at Georgetown University in Washington. But he’s primarily earned his living another way: as a contract scientist for chemical companies and their trade associations, promoting their positions on toxic chemicals from arsenic to Roundup.
As cancer clusters, immune disorders and fetal abnormalities mounted in communities contaminated by TCE, DeSesso was paid to cast doubt on the research establishing TCE’s toxic effects on the human body.
After a career of critiquing the science from the sidelines, DeSesso now had, for the first time, a study of his own, one he claimed could debunk decades of research unpacking TCE’s role in damaging fetal hearts. The study was funded by two trade associations that had supported his work over many years: the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, which represents the makers of TCE, and the American Chemistry Council.
The stakes were high – federal regulations hung in the balance – but DeSesso and his colleagues had every reason to believe their presentation would meet with a warm reception. He was here as an invited guest. One of his hosts, David Fischer, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of chemical safety, was himself a former executive of the American Chemistry Council. The trade group spends handsomely to influence federal regulation of chemicals, investing $7.6 million in lobbying the federal government in 2019 alone.
For years, DeSesso and his chemical industry sponsors had been preoccupied with trying to undercut the findings of a 2003 University of Arizona study. That study, led by veterinary scientist Paula Johnson, had been a landmark in establishing that TCE exposure at trace levels was highly toxic to developing embryos. The Johnson study had been pivotal in past EPA evaluations of TCE’s risks.
After her study came out, Johnson came under such ferocious attack by the chemical industry that she left research altogether. She said she’d never seen anyone get heckled at a scientific conference like she was or be subjected to the kind of “publication battle” that DeSesso and others launched against her in print.
Now DeSesso was here, inside the EPA, hoping to bury her study for good.
From the moment DeSesso’s study first appeared in the journal Birth Defects Research last year, it was the subject of intense controversy, as much over his conflicts of interest as his categorical conclusion that ingesting TCE at low levels “does not cause cardiac defects in rat offspring.” TCE experts inside academia were furious; four penned an excoriating letter to the editor pointing out that DeSesso had ignored a vast body of evidence showing TCE toxicity at low exposures. They attached a list of 15 studies, conducted from 2000 to 2018, supporting their conclusion.
In his presentation to the EPA that day, DeSesso bypassed that body of evidence again and made the same contentious claim: His findings demonstrated conclusively that TCE does not cause heart defects in rats.
The EPA scientists in attendance had heard DeSesso’s criticisms before. They knew the evidence linking TCE to heart deformities was strong. The EPA had formally analyzed the chemical’s risks in 2011 and again in 2016 and each time had found them to be so severe that, in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, the EPA had proposed bans of several common uses of the chemical altogether.
A year later, the EPA, then headed by President Donald Trump appointee Scott Pruitt, halted the regulatory process, quietly dropping the proposed rule from its schedule of pending regulatory actions. The regulatory process would start over from scratch. No new restrictions would be announced until the EPA completed a fresh scientific evaluation.
That official evaluation was released for public comment last week, and it appears to show the influence of DeSesso and his chemical company sponsors. Dismissing the findings of the Johnson study and decades of scientific research, the published evaluation rejects fetal heart malformations as a benchmark for unsafe exposure levels to TCE.
“This decision is grave,” said Jennifer McPartland, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “It not only underestimates the lifelong risks of the chemical, especially to the developing fetus, it also presents yet another example of this administration bowing to polluters’ interests over public health.”
But Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has learned that those findings were altered radically at the direction of the Trump White House.
Reveal has obtained a copy of a roughly 700-page draft evaluation that was signed off on by EPA scientists before it was sent out for review in December to the White House and several federal agencies. In that internal report, EPA scientists detailed methodological limitations in DeSesso’s study – it “was likely to miss” an important category of cardiac malformations – and found Johnson’s study to be so definitive that they used it as a benchmark for their calculations of unsafe exposure to TCE.
With this benchmark, the internal report had come to an entirely different conclusion: Even trace exposure to TCE is unsafe because it can deform fetal hearts.
The White House had directed the EPA to override the findings of its own scientists.
TCE has been used widely for decades to remove grease from electronics, medical devices, metal parts and aircraft and by ordinary dry cleaners. It was then often dumped and leaked, contaminating soil and groundwater in residential neighborhoods, military bases and industrial parks across the country.
It’s hard to overstate how widespread TCE is. It’s present in nearly 800 toxic Superfund sites in every state. The military has found it in 1,400 of its operational facilities. Hundreds of thousands of people working at dry cleaners and small manufacturing shops are exposed. It’s in tap water, too, in public water systems in 41 states that serve 19 million people, according to an analysis of EPA data by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. People also can be exposed to TCE from countless smaller sources of pollution, including neighborhood dry cleaners.
TCE was first identified as a potential carcinogen decades ago, and under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA set maximum levels for drinking water contamination in 1985. But those levels have never been updated, and no other form of exposure has ever been regulated formally.
Johnson’s study had its roots in the 1970s in a Tucson, Arizona, cardiology clinic. There, Johnson’s co-author, Dr. Stanley Goldberg, had noticed that many children who came into his clinic with heart defects lived in the same cluster of neighborhoods. The public tap water that served that area later was found to be contaminated with TCE. After wells were closed in the 1980s, he noticed, the cluster of heart defects disappeared. Since then, other studies of neighborhoods with TCE contamination have found increases in heart defects, including a 2012 study in upstate New York after a big spill at an Endicott IBM semiconductor plant.
The risk of TCE is so ubiquitous that it even affected a former senior EPA scientist, Tom Burke, the agency’s chief scientist during the Obama administration. When Burke’s mother was pregnant with him and during his early childhood in the 1950s, his family could look out of the kitchen windows in their Jersey City, New Jersey, home into the open windows of Standard Laundry, a local dry cleaner. He remembers watching the steam rise from clothes as women ironed them in industrial presses.
“There was always a sweet smell,” Burke recalled, a smell he now knows was TCE. As an adolescent, Burke learned that he likely would die before the age of 30 if he didn’t have open heart surgery to fix a congenital hole in his heart. He went on to become a pivotal player in advising on the EPA’s proposed ban in December 2016. “So I literally have had a lifetime relationship with TCE,” Burke said.
Despite the recognized risks, TCE still has a $350-million-a-year global market, a quarter of which is used in the United States, according to the EPA. It’s still used by tens of thousands of dry cleaners to remove spots from clothes and by manufacturers and small auto shops to strip grease off metal and plastic parts. Companies including steel mills, paper plants and refineries reported to the EPA that they released more than 2 million pounds of TCE into the air and land around the country in 2015 alone. The U.S. market used to be dominated by household names, such as Dow Chemical Co., which sold its TCE business in recent years. Now, most TCE is imported; the large domestic manufacturers that remain include Olin Corp. and Westlake Chemical Corp.
This Westlake Chemical Corp. plant in Lake Charles, La., left, and the Olin Corp. plant in Freeport, Texas, right, are among the few remaining large domestic manufacturers of TCE, according to EPA records. (CREDIT: Google, Maxar Technologies, U.S. Geological Survey, Texas General Land Office, Houston-Galveston Area Council and USDA Farm Service Agency)
TCE’s ubiquity also translates into enormous liabilities. Even without new regulations, cleanup costs for manufacturers and users, including the U.S. government, could run into the billions of dollars. Workers and residents exposed to the chemical already have won multimillion-dollar settlements, including a cluster of men from the same part of Tucson who were all diagnosed with a rare testicular cancer.
Several high-profile lawsuits are pending, including two by former employees of Brookhaven National Laboratory, a federal lab in New York, who suffered from TCE-related kidney damage. Lawyers in Minnesota are gathering clients to sue Water Gremlin after the fishing sinker manufacturer was fined $7 million for violating air pollution limits for TCE. Residents’ complaints include neurological diseases and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another cancer linked to TCE exposure.
The full range of serious health effects associated with TCE also includes kidney cancer, leukemia and immune diseases such as lupus. Decades of scientific research show that it takes higher doses of TCE or sustained exposure to cause most of these diseases. But research into fetal heart deformities has shown damage with much smaller exposures. So any regulations based on fetal heart science would be far more stringent – triggering more liability and higher cleanup costs.
That’s why chemical companies and their army of paid scientists such as DeSesso have focused their attacks for so long on the science linking TCE to heart defects.
The sheer scale of the liability risk has put TCE and the science linking it to fetal heart damage at the center of the chemical industry’s efforts to block regulation of its most toxic products since the early 2000s.
The internal document Reveal obtained, issued by the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and dated Dec. 20, 2019, is called “Risk Evaluation for Trichloroethylene.” Each page is stamped “Interagency draft – do not cite or quote.”
This sort of document is a routine part of the EPA’s mission to protect the environment and human health and to regulate human exposure to toxic chemicals. Before proposing any new chemical regulations, the agency deploys a team of staff scientists to conduct a rigorous evaluation of the scientific literature to establish unsafe exposure levels. The process, designed to be impartial, has been subjected to intense political interference by the Trump administration, according to the agency’s own Science Advisory Board. But the internal draft of this TCE evaluation, when compared with the published one, provides evidence of extensive, detailed and thoroughgoing edits that have not been documented in other cases.
The internal draft, government scientists say, involved three years of work, as EPA scientists combed through decades of scientific research on TCE’s toxicity and how people get exposed. But then the draft went to the White House and other federal agencies for review.
According to two government scientists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, EPA scientists were directed to substantially rewrite their evaluation by discarding the science on TCE’s role in fetal heart defects. The instructions, they said, came from the Executive Office of the President. That’s where Nancy Beck, chief of the EPA’s chemicals office and a longtime senior lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, was detailed in June.
The internal draft establishes heart defects as the baseline for determining unsafe TCE exposure levels.
“EPA identifies developmental cardiac malformations as the risk driver endpoint,” it reads. “This is the effect that is most sensitive, and it is expected that addressing risks for this effect would address other identified risks.”
But the 748-page published draft, released Feb. 21, radically alters that approach. It swaps in a new baseline: TCE’s role in suppressing immune function and causing autoimmune illnesses.
Notably, the amount of TCE found to trigger immunosuppression in the study used in the published draft is nearly 500 times higher than the exposure found to trigger heart defects in the Johnson study.
The regulatory implications of that change could be enormous. As rulemaking proceeds on TCE in the months to come, the sidelining of the heart defects research could affect any EPA proposals to ban or limit TCE. It also potentially could erode any existing EPA recommendations based on the heart defect science, such as EPA guidance on TCE pollution cleanup at military bases and other Superfund sites.
According to the two senior government scientists, the EPA swapped out heart deformities for a less sensitive benchmark on direct orders from the White House. Often, these directives arrived by email, as unsigned attachments from the Executive Office of the President. One government scientist said the attachments contained “redline” markups of changes the White House wanted made.
Once that change was made in the toxicity benchmark, it had a cascading effect.
In one measure of the pervasive impact of this one White House intervention, the term “cardiac toxicity” appears 322 times in the internal draft, but zero times in the published evaluation. Every single reference was eliminated. The internal draft mentions “immunosuppression” just 10 times and the published draft, 315 times.
This critical change is visible on page after page, as in this sentence on page 35 of the published draft, which begins, “The drivers for EPA’s determination of unreasonable risk for workers are immunosuppression…”; in the internal draft, this sentence reads: “The drivers for EPA’s determination of unreasonable risk for workers are developmental cardiac toxicity. …”
The published report recalculates the risks posed for each of 54 different ways TCE is used – from manufacturing refrigerants in big industrial plants to removing spots from living room carpets and cleaning guns. Each of these exposures has a dedicated section of the draft, and in each section, the toxicity benchmark was changed, and unsafe levels were recalculated and raised, after White House interference.
Raising unsafe levels also means that while the internal draft found that exposure to pepper spray presents an unreasonable risk, the published draft did not. The risk of the glue used in hair extensions and lace wigs, listed as an exposure in the internal draft, was dropped entirely in the published version, determined to fall outside the scope of the EPA’s jurisdiction “after consultation with the FDA.”
“This is absolutely evidence that science is taking a back seat,” said Richard Denison, a biochemist who focuses on toxic chemical regulation for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Yet TCE is so toxic that even after swapping out the studies, the EPA draft still finds that TCE poses unreasonable risks in 53 uses. In many instances, the published evaluation finds, even wearing gloves and respirators wouldn’t be enough to protect people from harm.
Compared with the internal draft, the published draft is significantly less critical of John DeSesso’s study. The latter acknowledges that DeSesso’s results “do not entirely contradict” Johnson’s but adds that the EPA considered DeSesso’s study to be “overall well-conducted.”
The government scientists independently said they were outraged that the White House was dictating the EPA’s scientific conclusions. “Who knows the science better – the EPA scientists or the White House?” asked one of them, a veteran EPA scientist, who added that over a lengthy career, they had never seen such “heavy-handed” interference by the White House in chemical safety.
Usually, the EPA scientist said, White House reviews are a process of negotiation. “This was just, ‘You guys aren’t getting it right; we’ll tell you how it’s supposed to read,’ ” the scientist said. “That’s unheard of.”
The scientists both said the White House had barred the EPA from releasing the draft for peer review and public comment until it deleted fetal heart risk as the exposure benchmark.
An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the question of White House interference in the draft, offering only a brief written statement. Federal law “requires EPA to use the best available science and the weight of scientific evidence, including systematic review, when conducting a risk evaluation,” the statement reads in part. “Through this process it is routine for the agency to receive input from all of our stakeholders, including our federal partners.” The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Scientific studies can produce contradictory findings, which is why the EPA bases its chemical evaluations on comprehensive reviews of the scientific research. By rejecting the fetal heart research, the White House effectively embraced the views of DeSesso and the chemical industry lobby and rejected decades of increasingly compelling evidence.
Ray Runyan, an embryologist and University of Arizona professor, has devoted much of his career to studying the mechanisms by which TCE affects the genes of developing hearts. He was among the scientists who signed the rebuttal to DeSesso’s study, arguing that DeSesso ignored a large body of research that Runyan helped build.
“I have a hard time imagining how they can sleep at night,” Runyan said, “knowing that they’re trying to cook the data to basically roll back the standards and expose people.”
Some of the peer-reviewed studies, such as the 2003 Johnson study, exposed lab animals to TCE and found fetal heart defects. Other in vitro studies probed the microscopic ways TCE damages genes and proteins needed for proper heart formation in utero. Runyan, for example, found in 2014 that TCE alters 4,000 genes, roughly a third of those active in a developing heart.
Ray Runyan, an embryologist at the University of Arizona, has devoted much of his career to studying how TCE affects the genes of developing hearts. Here, he uses an echocardiogram to measure the strength of heart muscles in a chicken embryo exposed to trace amounts of TCE. CREDIT: Elizabeth Shogren/Reveal
“It’s a little bit too coincidental that just their study is right, therefore all other studies are bogus,” said Ornella Selmin, a University of Arizona toxicologist who spent 10 years studying TCE’s effects on developing hearts of lab animals and another signatory to the DeSesso rebuttal. “It’s not a scientific approach.”
There’s a wide gap in the credentials of the scientists in this debate. Between them, Runyan, Selmin and the other two scientists who publicly rebutted DeSesso’s study have 16 peer-reviewed lab studies of TCE under their belts. DeSesso has only the one. Yet Trump EPA officials consulted closely with DeSesso and shut the others out. No one from the EPA asked Runyan or Selmin about their very public concerns over DeSesso’s study. Johnson said she spoke extensively by telephone with one EPA scientist years ago about the 12 years of painstaking lab research that went into her study, but said she was not contacted by anyone at the agency during the Trump administration’s fresh review.
In contrast, according to DeSesso, the EPA invited him in to present his findings. In fact, he said he and staff researchers with the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance had for years been in regular communication with the EPA about his study while it was still in the works, a claim confirmed by public comments the alliance filed to the EPA.
When DeSesso and his team published their study, they had to disclose a long list of conflicts of interest. DeSesso and all eight of his co-authors had direct financial ties to the chemical industry.
“Someone whose paycheck depends on the manufacture of the hazard, that’s not free of bias,” said Tom Burke, the former EPA chief scientist. “It’s very troubling. EPA’s obligation is not to protect an industry; it’s to protect public health and the environment. But that is not the top goal right now. The top goal is deregulation.”
The scientists who have seen a link between TCE and fetal heart deformities over many decades had no conflicts of interest to disclose.
“We went into the study completely agnostic,” Susan Smith, a University of North Carolina professor who studies toxic exposure and heart defects, said of her own TCE studies. In studying chicken embryos exposed to doses of TCE even smaller than the ones in the Johnson study, she found a high rate of defects, including deformities that she said were “incompatible with life.”
“The question was, ‘Does it have an effect?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, it did,’ ” said Smith, another signatory to the DeSesso rebuttal. “At the end of it, I was convinced that it poses a health risk to humans. The data were quite striking.”
“It’s a little bit too coincidental that just their study is right, therefore all other studies are bogus.”
DeSesso argues that his team’s conflicts of interests shouldn’t discredit their results.
“You can be cynical and say, well, the only reason why companies are doing this is because they don’t want to spend the money to clean up” TCE, he said. “Obviously, that’s probably part of the motivation for them to do this.” But he insists that if the lab hired to do the study had found defects, his team would have reported them.
“To me, the issue is: Does TCE cause heart defects? And in my estimation, I don’t think it does,” DeSesso said. “I certainly don’t believe it does at any kind of a concentration people would be exposed to.”
David Michaels, who headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama, said he’s seen this model before, in which trade associations hire scientific consulting firms “whose business it is to give you the answer that industry wants.”
“Obviously, right now in the Trump administration, they have a very sympathetic audience,” said Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University’s school of public health. “So they’re going to listen much more carefully. They’re going to buy what the industry is out there selling.”
Few figures embody the Trump administration’s approach to science better than Nancy Beck, the EPA chemical safety chief who was detailed to the White House last summer. Whether from inside government or inside the chemical industry, Beck has been fighting TCE regulation for most of her career. But it is unclear whether she personally had a hand in the White House’s revisions of the TCE draft evaluation, as Beck and the EPA press office declined repeated requests for interviews, and because the email attachments sent to EPA scientists, with their detailed markups, were unsigned.
In 2002, as an early-career toxicologist, Beck was hired into an obscure part of the Office of Management and Budget, known as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, during the administration of George W. Bush.
“Nancy was hired to be the hit man” for industry, recalled Jim Aidala, who ran the EPA’s chemical office under President Bill Clinton and then, as a consultant to the chemical industry, watched Beck’s political rise.
There, Beck perfected the “slow-rolling” of EPA chemical evaluations, according to a subsequent congressional investigation. And her office, according to that report, had “almost daily involvement on TCE.”
In 2003, not long after Beck’s arrival at the Office of Management and Budget, a Princeton-educated physicist and toxicologist named Weihsueh Chiu was assigned to lead a team of EPA experts in assessing TCE’s risks. “The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance was always pushing back,” recalled Chiu, whose research into TCE was published widely during his years at the EPA from 2000 to 2015. He says this pressure was especially intense when it came to the science linking TCE to fetal heart defects and cancer.
When Chiu arrived, the EPA already had produced a draft evaluation of TCE’s risks. But the Pentagon was so displeased with that 2001 evaluation that Defense Department officials demanded a review by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. The department’s objections were rooted in a conflict of interest, Chiu believed, because TCE cleanups at military installations would be far more expensive – billions of dollars more – if the EPA set low levels for TCE exposure. Indeed, that same congressional investigation found the Defense Department already had “been working for many years to block” EPA regulations on TCE and perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel. That National Academy review took years and didn’t wrap until 2006.
It was during this period, which coincided with Beck’s tenure at the Office of Management and Budget, that the White House started to exert more influence over the EPA’s activities, according to Chiu, now a toxicology professor at Texas A&M University. The White House created an interagency group that included the Pentagon, the Department of Energy and NASA to give feedback on the EPA’s science. Each agency had a legacy of TCE pollution and growing concerns about cleanup costs. On an array of chemicals, Beck pushed the EPA to change evaluations based on their concerns and others, former scientists at the EPA and Office of Management and Budget said.
Vince Cogliano, lead author of the 2001 draft TCE evaluation, first met Beck about 20 years ago, when she was at the EPA on a fellowship before joining Bush’s Office of Management and Budget. He recalled her as “hard-nosed and tenacious,” always challenging colleagues, constantly arguing that they were “overblowing the risks.”
“She was very quick to challenge every basis of our assessments,” recalled Cogliano, who retired from the EPA in November. “It pretty much was always that we were overinterpreting the data, making assessments that were too health protective.”
Cogliano said Beck knew how to dig into the granular details of an evaluation and doggedly push her view. “She’s very smart, very hard working, and she’s someone who is really convinced that she’s correct,” he said.
Finally, in 2011, Chiu’s team released its 1,200-page evaluation. Despite all the pressure from industry, the document declared TCE a carcinogen and a teratogen – a substance toxic to embryos in utero – and set unsafe exposure levels based on risks to fetal hearts at low levels of exposure. Paula Johnson’s 2003 study, bolstered by Ray Runyan’s and Susan Smith’s subsequent research, played a critical role in the evaluation.
“Ironically, during that delay from 2002 through 2011 when we finally released it, the evidence got stronger,” Chiu said.
Chiu’s evaluation was a critical step toward federal regulation of TCE. And its impact was felt in other ways. The EPA issued guidance in 2014 to Superfund sites across the country, directing them to use Chiu’s evaluation to guide TCE cleanups. And after Congress passed a legislative overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, dramatically increasing the EPA’s ability to restrict harmful chemicals, Obama EPA chief Gina McCarthy leaned on Chiu’s evaluation in picking TCE as one of the first chemicals her agency would try to restrict.
“For the first time in our history,” Obama said when he signed the amendments into law in June 2016, “we’ll actually be able to regulate chemicals effectively.”
In the meantime, TCE became national news when Obama signed legislation to provide health care to veterans and their families who were diagnosed with cancers or other diseases after living at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where the tap water had been contaminated with TCE.
“She was very quick to challenge our assessments. It pretty much was always that we were making assessments that were too health protective.”
Some months after Chiu’s evaluation was released, Beck took a position at the American Chemistry Council as senior director of regulatory science policy. While with the council, Beck frequently criticized the EPA for exaggerating the risk chemicals pose to human health. In 2013, for example, she responded to the EPA’s effort to revive the chemical safety law with a 27-page public comment letter criticizing the agency’s risk evaluations of several chemicals, including, prominently, TCE.
“In many instances, EPA uses worst-case or high-end assumptions that lead to an overestimation of the potential risks,” Beck wrote.
Such pushback created enormous hurdles as McCarthy forged ahead on TCE restrictions. The chemical industry and the Defense Department strenuously objected to Chiu’s use of the fetal heart science in his evaluation. EPA leadership tasked an array of scientists from across the agency to reevaluate the assessment, further delaying regulatory action. Finally, a few months after Obama signed the new chemical safety law, these scientists reaffirmed the suitability of using the heart defect research when setting unsafe levels for TCE exposure.
John DeSesso swung into action, writing an article with Stephen Risotto, a colleague of Beck’s at the American Chemistry Council, registering their “dismay” over the EPA scientists’ conclusion.
As McCarthy was reaching a decision point, she turned to Burke, her chief scientist, for counsel.
“There are a million kids with congenital heart defects walking around today,” Burke recalled telling her. He reminded her that 40,000 babies are born with heart defects every year and that saving their lives costs billions of dollars annually.
“With a chemical where there’s pervasive exposure, and it’s in the air and it’s in the drinking water,” he said, “well, then there’s an opportunity, an important opportunity, and I think a responsibility, to reduce those exposures and to protect public health. That’s what we do.”
No toxic substance had been restricted by the EPA in decades. Yet in the last weeks of the Obama administration, more than a decade after Chiu embarked on the EPA’s new study of the solvent’s risks, the agency proposed to ban several uses of TCE – as a spot cleaner at dry cleaners; as an aerosol or vapor degreaser for small repair, manufacturing and metal plating shops; and as a vapor degreaser for large industrial plants.
The American Chemistry Council again claimed the agency had relied on “flawed” science.
By then, Beck had been named head of the EPA’s chemical office, putting a top chemical industry lobbyist squarely in charge of EPA policy on toxic chemicals. Two years later, in June 2019, Beck was detailed to the White House.
“It’s very unusual and extremely dangerous to have the fox put in charge of the chicken coop,” said David Michaels, the former OSHA chief. “It is a recipe for weak regulations.”
Official documents show that soon after she started at the EPA, Beck met with the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance. In that July 2017 meeting, the trade group hammered home its written comments on the EPA’s proposed TCE restrictions, which urge the EPA to withdraw the proposed bans altogether. The trade group argued that the restrictions were based on a “very deficient risk assessment” and relied on “a single flawed” study, referring to Paula Johnson’s 2003 study. The comments also mention John DeSesso’s study, noting that the trade group had paid a lab to replicate Johnson’s study, but the lab had encountered technical difficulties and its results would be delayed.
Chiu still finds the notion that the EPA evaluation he led was based only on the Johnson study absurd. “It wasn’t all just based on this one study,” he said. “Many lines of evidence suggested that there was a potential hazard.”
Soon, Beck turned her attention to undercutting Obama’s landmark chemical safety law, commandeering the development of rules to implement the law that would weaken its impact on chemical companies. For instance, rules she drafted would allow the EPA to consider only direct exposure when evaluating the risks of a chemical, prohibiting the agency from considering many ways people are exposed to chemicals such as TCE, including from air pollution, contaminated drinking water or vapors emanating from contaminated soil or groundwater.
Beck’s proposed regulations so blatantly violated the intent of the law that the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups sued, arguing that the law did not give the EPA discretion to ignore common forms of chemical exposure. Beck dug in, engaging in the EPA’s defense of the rules, though the extent of her role came to light only after the American Chemistry Council, her former employer, intervened in the court case on behalf of the EPA. That intervention required Beck to consult with an EPA ethics officer to obtain permission to continue working on the case.
“Nancy Beck came in, took charge, rewrote rules and imposed her policy views, which are the American Chemistry Council views,” said Daniel Rosenberg, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs. “She completely changed the direction of the agency and imposed an interpretation consistent with what American Chemistry Council wanted and inconsistent with the law.”
In November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs, finding that the EPA had erred when writing these rules. The court described as “unlawful” some of Beck’s exclusions of ways people are exposed to dangerous chemicals.
Yet other of Beck’s rules survived the court challenge, and their impact can be seen in the TCE evaluation published by the EPA last week. That report was constrained from evaluating TCE’s broad risks to the general population. Despite its “sheer girth,” former EPA scientist Burke noted, the evaluation fails to examine the very risks many Americans face on a daily basis: the TCE spewing from smokestacks of refineries, paper mills and steel plants; seeping up from contaminated soil and groundwater, as it did at Camp Lejeune; or emanating from an automobile brake shop or dry cleaner next door, the way Burke was exposed before he was born.
“It put blinders on,” he said. “It doesn’t look at the exposures of millions of people.”
With Beck in charge, industry trade groups became more brazen in their demands. Richard Denison, an Environmental Defense Fund scientist, had collaborated closely with industry representatives to help draft the 2016 law. But he said compromise and dialogue are now off the table. “I’ve been frankly horrified by the greed of the industry during this administration to get everything they can while the getting is good,” he said.
“Nancy Beck came in, took charge, rewrote rules and imposed her policy views, which are the American Chemistry Council views.”
Beck’s alliance with industry became evident in other EPA actions on hazardous chemicals, including the agency’s decision in July not to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that studies have found harms children’s brain development and increases the risk of autism. Three states – California, New York and Hawaii – have banned it in recent years as evidence of its effects has mounted.
The EPA declined to set up interviews with Beck or other agency officials who worked on the TCE regulations, including David Fischer, who attended that meeting with DeSesso last autumn. The American Chemistry Council and the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance also refused requests for interviews, though the council responded to emailed queries in a statement.
“We continue to disagree with EPA’s conclusion concerning cardiac effects observed in lab animals based solely on observations in one study,” that statement read in part. “We understand the concerns families have about their health and the concerns related to fetal heart development. It’s critical that the best available science is used in regulatory decision making in order to protect the public health.”
Chris Orris was a year into his recovery from open heart surgery to fix a major birth defect when a news report caught his eye. It was 2012, and Obama had just signed legislation to help military families who’d been sickened by Camp Lejeune’s toxic tap water.
Chris had been born on the base in 1974, and he describes reading that headline as a “eureka moment.”
“I was like, wait a second,” he said. “This completes the puzzle.”
He’d been unaware until then of the link between TCE and congenital heart defects – or TCE’s widespread presence on the base where his mother carried him to term. Now he is convinced that the toxic chemical in the water nearly killed him, as is his father, Johnny Orris, now retired after a career in the Marines.
“I’ve spent 30 years in the Marine Corps, and I am proud to have served my country, and I still consider myself a true patriot,” Johnny Orris said. “But it makes me feel sad that they weren’t honest with me up front, and then later on, that my son would suffer. And I almost lost him.”
The two men recently returned to Camp Lejeune, to drive by the former hospital on base where Chris was born and through Tarawa Terrace, the neighborhood where the family lived in a modest duplex at the time of Chris’ birth.
As a young Marine, Johnny was unaware of any risk. But thinking back, he remembers a close friend whose wife had several miscarriages. Chris’ mother said she remembers another woman she knew who had a stillborn child. And since then, Chris, now a member of a community assistance panel set up by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for victims of contamination at Camp Lejeune, has heard many stories of similar family tragedies from former residents of the base.
“Thirty years ago, this was a horror house for many of the families that lived here,” he said.
Chris is reminded of how fortunate he is when he visits a military cemetery in New Bern, North Carolina, the town where he now lives. About an hour’s drive from Camp Lejeune, New Bern is the closest military cemetery to the base. On a recent visit, as Chris walked among the rows of simple white stones marking the graves of hundreds of children, he bent down to read many of them. Some were etched with names and dates that revealed painfully brief lifespans. Others marked infants who died before they were named; the stones simply say “son of” or “daughter of.” According to a spreadsheet provided to Reveal by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration, between 1958 and 1990, roughly the same years when the water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated, 469 children of military personnel were buried there. The military did not track their cause of death.
“I could very easily be resting here,” Chris said as he wandered among the gravestones at twilight. “It’s terribly sad.”
As of last summer, 3,449 veterans who lived at Camp Lejeune had been treated for one or more of 15 specified conditions linked to the TCE-contaminated water, and another 481 family members had been reimbursed for treatment of those conditions.
Chris is not among them. Although toxic substance divisions of both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have concluded that TCE exposure early in pregnancy can increase the chance of heart defects, the federal government has yet to update the list of diseases covered under the 2012 Camp Lejeune bill to include heart defects. So Chris gets no help from the federal government, and, lacking health insurance, currently grapples with the costs of his recurrent heart issues on his own.
This is particularly hard for his father to take. The Marine Corps ethos, he said, is “honor, courage, commitment,” and he believed the Corps had promised to protect his family while he was serving his country. “And then to find out that they don’t want to take care of him,” Johnny said, “that is sad.”
Over the decades-long fight to protect their market and escape liability, TCE manufacturers and their lobbyists at the American Chemistry Council and the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance have gained some powerful allies. That’s because liability for TCE cleanups and exposure is borne not just by manufacturers, but also by end users – those dry cleaners, parts shops, electronics factories and military installations. The dry cleaning lobby, for instance, submitted public comments opposing the TCE ban, arguing that the replacement chemicals would be more time consuming and expensive. Last year, EPA officials toured a medical device manufacturer, which also complained that a TCE ban would hurt its business.
But the chemical companies’ most powerful ally by far has been the U.S. military, which now faces potentially enormous cleanup costs for TCE contamination at 1,400 operational facilities. Of the nearly 800 Superfund sites nationwide where TCE is a major contaminant, at least 100 are military bases and other Defense Department properties, according to Reveal’s analysis of data provided by the EPA. These are places that are so contaminated that cleanup will take years or even decades, at enormous cost. Defense Department spokesman Charles Prichard told Reveal that the department does not track cleanups by contaminant, but the military’s “existing overall environmental cleanup liability” is $33 billion.
The Defense Department “is really a victim of chemical manufacturers,” said Tom Burke, the former EPA chief scientist. “They were a major user of it, and now they’re left holding the bag for cleanup.”
Tighter regulations would translate into even more expensive cleanups and liabilities. So for years, Pentagon officials worked with the industry to delay EPA regulations, including by persistently casting doubt on the science linking TCE to fetal heart defects.
Quietly, in April last year, the Defense Department did an end run around the EPA, proposing its own standard for how much TCE is unsafe for its service members and civilian workers to breathe. That standard is about 2,500 times weaker than the level EPA scientists – in both Weihsueh Chiu’s 2011 EPA evaluation and the December 2019 internal draft evaluation obtained by Reveal – had determined was unsafe. Defense Department scientists justified the weaker standard by parroting the talking points of John DeSesso and his chemical industry sponsors: They simply rejected decades of fetal heart science by rejecting the Paula Johnson study.
“The primary study used by EPA we feel is inappropriate to use for the toxicity evaluation,” said Tom Sussan, a biologist who drafted the Defense Department’s occupational exposure level.
Sussan said the Defense Department took the unusual step of coming up with its own standard after the EPA ordered disruptive evacuations of buildings on military bases where TCE levels exceeded standards the EPA laid out in its guidance memo based on Chiu’s evaluation. Sussan also noted that the department’s standard is more stringent than OSHA’s standard for worker exposure. But OSHA standards are designed for workers who are knowingly exposed to toxic substances and may wear protective gear; they don’t have to take into account risks to vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and pregnant women. Also, OSHA’s TCE standard was adopted in 1993, long before any research on fetal heart defects had appeared.
Sussan described one such evacuation at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, in a building near where he had worked until recently.
“The commander is not used to having the EPA come in and regulate in a workplace setting,” he said. “So there was confusion with what the commander should do.”
In a statement to Reveal, an EPA spokesperson insisted that the agency does not order evacuations of military facilities. However, the EPA confirmed that the Army and EPA detected TCE levels higher than acceptable at Aberdeen in February 2015 and that 10 people were evacuated. The building remains unoccupied, according to the EPA.
Elevated levels of TCE also were detected at the Naval Weapons Station in Yorktown, Virginia, in 2012, according to the EPA, where the Navy evacuated about 100 workers from several buildings. Two buildings remain unoccupied; the third is back in use after mitigation efforts were deemed successful, the EPA spokesperson said.
The EPA spokesperson insisted that the EPA’s standard should be applied to military service members and employees as OSHA standards “may not incorporate the most recent toxicological data.”
Burke, the former top EPA scientist, was stunned to learn of the Defense Department’s decision. “Are we going to subject people on military bases to higher risk than we would accept in other places?” he said. “This is a throwback and a double standard on public health.”
A National Academy of Sciences panel reviewed the Defense Department’s proposed standard and in November published a highly critical evaluation of the department’s approach to the fetal heart research. The department’s decision to single out the Johnson study for exclusion, the panel said, “appears arbitrary, is not transparent, and is inconsistent with the process of how other studies were evaluated.”
Prichard, the Defense Department spokesman, said the department “appreciates the NAS (National Academy of Sciences) independent review and is reviewing options for implementing the NAS recommendations.” He said the military will continue to apply EPA standards to living quarters; the new military standard will apply only to workplace exposures, including “using the chemical, vapor intrusion into the workplace, (and) exposure from other ambient sources.”
Today at Camp Lejeune, although the military stopped serving TCE-tainted tap water in the 1980s, TCE and other toxic chemicals still contaminate soil and groundwater at the base.
“The vapors that come from those contaminants in the shallow groundwater, they seep up through the soil and they can migrate up into the buildings,” said Jack Hanley, acting branch chief for community health investigations at the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “And so the contaminants get into the indoor air.”
Hanley manages an evaluation of the health risks from toxic vapors inside 150 buildings at Camp Lejeune that’s been underway for several years.
In 2010, according to Camp Lejeune spokesperson Nat Fahy, the base detected TCE in and around a three-story brick barracks. The building sits near a plume of groundwater that was contaminated by the base’s dry cleaner, which, Fahy said, was torn down in 2004. Four years after first detecting TCE in the barracks, environmental experts investigated and, in 2014, discovered that sewer gas tainted with TCE was backing up into the barracks because of derelict plumbing. Fahy said the base capped the plumbing and installed a $67,000 sewer venting system around 2016.
In the meantime, female Marines were housed in the barracks, and at least eight of them became pregnant while living there.
A military environmental engineer who spoke on the condition that she not be named said the base did not evacuate the women because during that time – despite Chiu’s decisive evaluation of TCE’s toxicity – there were still no federal standards governing how much TCE in the air was unsafe. It wasn’t until 2014 that the base did TCE screenings based on the safety level established in Chiu’s evaluation.
“The vapors that come from those contaminants in the groundwater, they seep up through the soil and can migrate up into the buildings.”
For years, Chris Orris and his colleagues on the community assistance panel pressed the Marine Corps and the Navy, which runs Camp Lejeune, for answers about the barracks. During one of the panel’s public meetings, this one in Atlanta in August 2018, a representative of the Marine Corps and Navy reported that those eight women never were contacted directly about the risk their unborn babies faced. Orris was livid.
“The Marine Corps doesn’t see a problem with exposing their female Marines of childbearing age to a chemical that could cause a cardiac defect in the unborn child?” he said. “We’re not talking about past contaminations. … You know about it, you have known about it, and you have not and still do not do anything to protect these children.”
The EPA’s published draft evaluation of TCE, with its sidelining of fetal heart research, may only strengthen the Pentagon’s hand in setting a far weaker TCE standard. If the Defense Department moves forward with its plan, fewer buildings inundated with TCE fumes will be evacuated, torn down or properly vented. More pregnant women will be exposed to TCE levels that the EPA’s scientists have found are unreasonably risky – a finding that has now been scrubbed.
Even the published TCE evaluation, with its heavy White House edits, finds that the chemical poses unreasonable risks in dozens of common uses by businesses and consumers alike.
So as Burke, the former top EPA scientist, points out, the EPA will still likely restrict its use – we just don’t know in what ways or how long it will take. In the meantime, everyone from mechanics to shoe makers, printers, dry cleaners, and Marines and their families will continue to be exposed.
In the nearly two decades since the EPA first reviewed the science and found TCE to be toxic, no new restrictions were ever put into place. No one’s counted how many lives were lost during that time.
“How did we use it for so long, and in so many applications?” Burke asked. “It has implications for all of us.”
Data reporter Melissa Lewis and senior reporter Lance Williams contributed to this story. It was edited by Esther Kaplan, Andrew Donohue and Matt Thompson and copy edited by Nikki Frick.