Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

Our members keep us going.

JOIN TODAY!
Nov 7, 2020

The American divide

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Reveal host Al Letson talks to a first-time voter, whose struggles reflect the divisions this country faces after a historic election.

Then reporter Elizabeth Shogren looks into the chemical TCE. Unborn babies’ hearts are at risk as the Trump administration bows to chemical companies’ 20-year effort to debunk the science linking the dangerous chemical to fetal heart defects. 

Chris Orris was born at Camp Lejeune when the drinking water was heavily contaminated with TCE. Orris had open heart surgery for a defect.

University of Arizona scientist Ray Runyan inspects chicken heart muscles exposed to TCE. Chemistry companies have been trying for 20 years to get the Environmental Protection Agency to reject experiments like this that show TCE can deform hearts. Under President Donald Trump, former executives of chemical company trade groups are calling the shots on toxic chemicals at the EPA and White House.

The drinking water at Camp Lejeune was cleaned up in the 1980s, but TCE vapors crept into a barracks that houses female Marines. TCE contamination puts people in every state at risk at nearly 800 other toxic Superfund sites. To avoid liability and cleanup costs, the Pentagon has proposed its own less protective TCE standard. 

Since this show originally aired, the New York Legislature voted to ban most uses of TCE.

Dig Deeper

Read: EPA scientists found a toxic chemical damages fetal hearts. The Trump administration rewrote their assessment.

Read: EPA science panel plows ahead with toxic chemical’s review, despite coronavirus crisis

Read: New York bill to ban toxic solvent awaits governor’s signature

Credits

Reported by: Elizabeth Shogren

Produced by: Elizabeth Shogren & Najib Aminy

Edited by: Deb George, Kevin Sullivan & Taki Telonidis. Additional editorial support from Michael Montgomery.

Production manager: Amy Mostafa 

Production assistance: Brett Simpson 

Sound design and music:  Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Najib Aminy and Amy Mostafa

Mixing by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan  

Host: Al Letson Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al letson: Hey, hey, hey. It's Al. And before we get started today, we have a favor to ask of you. Reveal is conducting our annual audience survey. Why? We want to learn more about you. What you like about the show, what you don't like, how much of a raise you think Al deserves, which, that would be nice. Important things like that. Just text survey to 474747 to get started. Your feedback really does help us. Again, just text the word survey to 474747. And thanks.

Speaker 2: Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. Introducing Allbirds apparel. Amidst the industry's sea of sameness, virgin synthetics and single use fashion, Allbird's new line of tops and outerwear stands out with premium natural materials and intention design so everyone can look better, feel better, and tread lighter on the planet. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you're wearing a product that's doing right by you and the planet. If you're looking to get a head start on holiday gifting this year, head to allbirds.com today for the perfect gift to give and receive.

Speaker 2: Support for Reveal comes from NBC Peacock. How much would you risk to save the life of a family member? For Nelly Rowe, the answer is everything. The second installment of the critically acclaimed drama, Save Me, comes to Peacock with Save Me Too. In Save Me Too, Jody is still missing and Nellie will stop at nothing to find her. With new suspects and new secrets, this series will have you hooked from the moment you start watching. Your next great binge is waiting for you with Save Me Too. Sign up at PeacockTV.com to stream now.

Al letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

Al letson: After months of get out to vote pushes, long lines at polling stations and finally the casting of ballots Americans watched the results roll in. What we know for sure is, despite all the changes in the last four years, a pandemic, historic protests, one thing remains the same. America is still divided and this caught a lot of people by surprise. I knew it would be tight, I just thought with the surge in registrations and voting, maybe it wouldn't be that tight and yet here we are, right back at the divide. That rift, and let's be honest, it isn't new, it's just grown wider, it can be seen in our politics, religion, personal relationships, and even within ourselves. That's something Jackson Wolfe has struggled with.

Al letson: He's an 18-year old first time voter from Wisconsin. This year he worked on a get out to vote campaign with a nonprofit called Leaders Igniting Transformation. Like millions of other Americans, he cast his ballot before election day.

Speaker 3: Hello.

Jackson Wolfe: Hello.

Speaker 3: Here to vote?

Jackson Wolfe: Yes, ma'am.

Speaker 3: And are you registered?

Jackson Wolfe: I am.

Al letson: For Jackson, voting for the first time was a big deal.

Speaker 3: Okay, your ballot, you don't need to do anything on the back, you're going to complete the front by coloring the ovals.

Jackson Wolfe: Okay.

Al letson: Jackson is black, gay, and for a long time was a devout republican. He grew in Sheboygan, a small city about an hour north of Milwaukee where the majority of people are republican and almost everyone is white. He lives in a state where black men have been incarcerated at rates far higher than anywhere else in the country. The day after he voted we gave Jackson a call and he told me about the unusual journey he's been on over the past few years.

Jackson Wolfe: I grew up in white schools, predominately white conservative peers. In terms of fitting in, I made it work the best I could, kind of assimilating to that way of life and just did my best to not be the one black kid. Because as a young kid, you don't want to be the outlier.

Al letson: Was there an internal struggle over who you were as in, you are a young black kid in a predominately white area. Your mom is white too, right?

Jackson Wolfe: Yes, yep. For the longest time, I considered myself a hard going conservative and the only time I talked about my blackness was to talk about the absentee parent rate, was to talk about black on black crime rates. I learned to assimilate to my white peers who are all also raised with the ideologies that black men in this country are lazy and they live in drug-ridden communities and that kind of thing. That was my mindset for the longest, longest time.

Al letson: How have the past few years changed your perspective on all of that?

Jackson Wolfe: Coming into high school I was still one of the only people of color. However, towards the end of middle school, beginning of high school I came out as an openly gay man, which was another outlier for me. But being a gay man gave me different perspectives. I was still such a conservative individual that just had so much hatred for myself and the way that I looked and my skin color and what it represented to me in my mind. The turn around in that, there was never an epiphany moment. It was more so a learning curve.

Al letson: An important moment on that learning curve happened one day in May when Jackson found his mother in tears.

Jackson Wolfe: I remember coming home that day from work. She was sitting on the couch and just crying. I asked her what's wrong, what happened. She asked me if I knew what was going on with George Floyd. By that point it's been a couple of days. The world was in shock of what had happened and I'm like, "Yeah. Of course, I know." She was like, "Did you watch the video?" I was like, "I haven't seen it. No, not yet." She shows me it and I see this poor man crying out for his mother while he's being held with a knee in his neck. She stops the video and she looks at me and she goes, "What if that was you? Any one of these days, it could have been you."

Jackson Wolfe: I sat there with my mom. Here is a white woman, a white woman that raised me and she's more worried about my blackness than I am. What does that say about me? What does that say about how knowledgeable about the threats that I'll face one day?

Al letson: I don't think it says anything about you that you didn't grasp it the same way she did because it is such a complex thing. And as a parent of a black child, that fear can grip you in a way, it's unexplainable. In order to live in the skin you're in, you can't constantly be in that place of fight or flight. It's just not healthy.

Jackson Wolfe: Right.

Al letson: This is the first time that you voted for a presidential election, right?

Jackson Wolfe: Yes. My very first time.

Al letson: Tell me how that went, how did it feel?

Jackson Wolfe: It felt powerful because there is so much that hangs in the balance of this. Tensions here in America will be heavily influenced by this election. Healthcare will be heavily influenced by this election. My rights to marry will be heavily influenced by this election. Me, myself, and the way that I can live my life as a gay black man will be highly determined by the way this election turns out. With how much of a growth I've had as a black man, and in the last four years, the climate of this country just going to absolute hell, it was so ironic that after all that growth, this is the first election I get to vote in.

Al letson: A few days after election day I decided to call Jackson back.

Al letson: Hey Jackson, how are you doing?

Jackson Wolfe: I'm doing well. How are you doing?

Al letson: What do you make of everything that's happening?

Jackson Wolfe: It is crazy right now. I really feel like right now, as a country, we're all very tense and I think everyone is collectively ready for this to move forward. But moving forward is the scary part and that's what everyone is worried about.

Al letson: Now that you've voted and you've seen the results. Does it give you faith in the system?

Jackson Wolfe: It's hard to have faith in a system that is built with institutions that are designed to keep certain people down. I struggle even now, of course, I will always stress the importance of a vote and stress that it is your voice. Still, no, I can't say that I have faith or complete faith. I have hope that things can get better and that these institutions and that the system can heal and progress, but right now seeing how divided we are and seeing how messy the two-party system is, in particular, I wouldn't say faith in the system is a good way to describe what I feel for it.

Al letson: Jackson Wolfe, first time voter from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Jackson, thanks so much for talking to me again.

Jackson Wolfe: Of course, thank you for having me.

Al letson: One of the keys goals of the Trump administration has been to dial back environmental regulations. In a moment, what that means for people exposed to a toxic chemical most of us have never heard of but which is commonly used in factories, dry cleaners and car repair shops.

Al letson: You're listening to Reveal.

Speaker 2: In the 1980s, America was clear cutting the last of its old growth forests, but then a small group of protesters started to stand in the way. Timber Wars is a podcast about how the fight over ancient trees transformed not just the Pacific Northwest but the very way we think about forests and it divided the nation, turning environmental conflicts into culture wars. Timber Wars is a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts, NPR1, Spotify, and at OPB.org.

Speaker 2: Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. Introducing Allbirds apparel. Amidst the industry's sea of sameness, virgin synthetics and single use fashion, Allbird's new line of tops and outerwear stands out with premium natural materials and intention design so everyone can look better, feel better, and tread lighter on the planet. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you're wearing a product that's doing right by you and the planet. If you're looking to get a head start on holiday gifting this year, head to allbirds.com today for the perfect gift to give and receive.

Al letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

Al letson: Ever since President Trump took office, we've been reporting how he's ignored science to benefit business. He reversed an Obama-era plan to make cars cleaner. His administration tried to censor the human role in climate change from a key government report on sea level rise and he blocked stricter control of methane emissions from oil and gas drilling. The New York Times has counted at least 100 roll backs of environmental regulations. And earlier this year, we aired a show that uncovered how the White House overruled EPA scientists about the risks of an extremely toxic chemical.

Elizabeth Shogr...: The EPA published this enormous document, more than 700 pages long, a draft evaluation of the risks that people face from a toxic chemical called trichloroethylene, or TCE.

Al letson: That's Reveal's environmental reporter, Elizabeth Shogren.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Most people have probably never heard of TCE, but it's a very widely used chemical. It's used to take grease off of stuff. You can find it in manufacturing, in car repair shops, at military sites, and dry cleaners across the country use it to remove spots from clothes.

Al letson: So it's a really useful chemical, but it's also really dangerous.

Elizabeth Shogr...: It can cause kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and it can harm your immune system. They've also found that if pregnant women are exposed to just tiny amounts of it, their babies can be born with heart defects.

Al letson: The government is supposed to restrict or ban chemicals that are dangerous. For the past twenty years they've been studying the risks of TCE without doing anything about it. So this new report from the EPA is really important because it's a key step in keeping people safe. There's just one thing-

Elizabeth Shogr...: It's not the original report that EPA scientists actually wrote. I found out that the White House read through the original and made the EPA rewrite it.

Al letson: The Trump administration changed the report, ignoring more than 20 years of research after the chemical industry attacked the science.

Elizabeth Shogr...: These veteran scientists were really outraged by this interference by the White House. They say they've never experienced anything like it and I was able to get a copy of their original draft.

Al letson: We're going to tell you exactly how the White House changed that report and how Reveal's investigation led a senator to confront a White House official about rejecting science. But first, we're going back in time to trace the history of TCE and figure out how come we've been living with it for so long and why the government's done so little to protect us. Elizabeth begins our story at a Marine base in North Carolina early one morning.

Elizabeth Shogr...: The day starts early at Camp Lejeune. Marines jog through the base carrying logs the size of tree trunks on their shoulders and they cheer each other on as they take on the obstacle course. I'm here to meet Johnny Orris and his son, Chris. Johnny's a retired Marine in his 60s and Chris is 45. We drive up to a big, brick building. These days it's the headquarters of one of the Marine Corps top commanders.

Johnny Orris: This used to be the old naval hospital, this big complex here. This is where he was born. This is the beginning.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Out front, there's a big magnolia tree. Let's stand under the shady tree. Johnny remembers rushing Chris' pregnant mom here. It was a steamy day in August, 1974. By the time he parked the car and went into the hospital.

Johnny Orris: I was tapped on the shoulder and told that I had a new baby boy. I was really, really happy about that.

Elizabeth Shogr...: So this is where it all started, Chris?

Chris Orris: This is where I was born. And this is only the third time I've ever been here.

Elizabeth Shogr...: At the time there were lots of young families at Camp Lejeune. The Vietnam War was winding down. Johnny and the other Marines were often gone for long periods of time, sometimes training, sometimes fighting. And while they were gone, they depended on the Marine Corps to keep their families safe.

Johnny Orris: The Marine Corps' ethos is honor, courage and commitment, that while you're gone, that they take care of your family.

Elizabeth Shogr...: The Orris' lived on base. We drive to their old neighborhood and they say a lot's changed here since the 1970s.

Chris Orris: Dad, do you remember roughly where the house would have been as you're driving down this road?

Johnny Orris: As a matter of fact, it would have been right in here.

Elizabeth Shogr...: But the homes we're looking at today are a lot bigger than the ones Johnny remembers. We get out and stand on the sidewalk. Do any memories come back to you, now that we're here?

Johnny Orris: Oh yeah. I was a young corporal, a non-commissioned officer. Loved being a Marine. I have some good memories of living here. I had some nice friends.

Elizabeth Shogr...: He used to ride motorcycles with a friend who lived across the street, but he has darker memories too. That same friend's wife had three miscarriages.

Johnny Orris: I remember that distinctly because it was just so unusual for somebody to have that number of miscarriages.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Chris says he's also heard stories of stillborn babies and young children dying of cancer.

Chris Orris: On the surface, this looks like a really peaceful, tranquil community. But 30 years ago, this was a horror house for many of the families that lived here.

Elizabeth Shogr...: A house of horrors. Chris says his mom recently gave him a photo taken here. It shows a woman who was a close friend of his mom's. In the picture, she's obviously quite pregnant.

Chris Orris: About seven and a half or eight months pregnant and she lost that baby about a week after I was born. My mom said that was just something that happened all the time around here. Was that there were just so many women who got pregnant and lost their babies.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Johnny remembers no one had any idea what was causing these family tragedies, but one odd detail does stick out in his memory.

Johnny Orris: They came in and they put this box into our houses and said it was to monitor something, but we really didn't know. Nobody really asked. You're young, you're not thinking about those things. We all joked that they were spying on us.

Elizabeth Shogr...: And today, Johnny wonders what those boxes really were about. Decades passed, it was 2011, Chris was a 36-year old banker living in Colorado and his health started failing.

Chris Orris: I was rapidly deteriorating. It was getting to the point where I couldn't walk across a room without getting out of breath.

Elizabeth Shogr...: That must have been terrifying.

Chris Orris: It was really rough. I was a single parent. It was a very scary time for me.

Elizabeth Shogr...: His doctor ordered a bunch of tests.

Chris Orris: I was getting weaker and weaker and weaker. I passed out one time in the middle of my kitchen while I was cooking. The doctor ordered an angiogram.

Elizabeth Shogr...: That's when a cardiologist injects the blood vessels of your heart with a special dye that can be seen on xrays.

Chris Orris: And then the next thing you know, the doctors in the room are, "Go get so and so. Have him come take a look at this." All of a sudden there was a whole crowd of people around me. I fell asleep a little and I woke up and the doctor just looked at me and said, "You have less than two years to live. You have a heart defect and we can't believe you're still alive. We've never seen somebody like you with this type of a defect."

Elizabeth Shogr...: Two years to live unless he has open heart surgery. Heart defects are common, but Chris' type is rare. Usually it's only seen in young children so a pediatric cardiologist was called in. Johnny remembers flying to Colorado to be with Chris' son.

Johnny Orris: When he went in to have surgery, thinking that I may never see him again, I really felt overcome with emotion. I was like, wow, how could this have happened to my son. And then of course when he came out of the recovery room, it was just horrible for the next few days being there and watching how he was suffering after the surgery.

Chris Orris: I remember the third night after the surgery, I remember giving up. I remember saying, I'm done, because it just hurt so much. The pain was just incredible and then I woke up the next day and I felt a lot better. That was a turning point. During my recovery, my doctors were so amazed at how quickly I'd recovered, because as soon as I hit that turning point, I started feeling something that I'd never felt before. I had all of this energy and I just felt so good. Because for the first time in my life, I was getting oxygenated blood throughout my body. My body wasn't starving for oxygen like it had been my entire life.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Within a month, Chris was in a gym and after two months, he was back at work.

Chris Orris: For me, recovery was an amazing thing because every day I got better and better and better. And every day since that surgery has been a bonus day for me.

Elizabeth Shogr...: About a year later, Chris was at work and a news story about Camp Lejeune popped up on his screen.

Chris Orris: I opened it up and in bold letters up there it said, Toxic Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune, Thousands of Potential Cancer Cases and Birth Defects. I said, wait a minute, what is this.

Elizabeth Shogr...: The toxic water Chris was reading about was contaminated with TCE. For decades, the base had used the chemical as a cleaner to get grease off of military equipment like missiles, helicopters, and tanks. A dry cleaner on the base, like a lot of dry cleaners, used TCE to get spots out. Over the years the chemical got into the ground water used for drinking and that's how people could have gotten sick. TCE has been linked to leukemia, liver and kidney cancer, immune problems, miscarriages, and heart defects like the one Chris had.

Chris Orris: I'd never heard anything about this. I started reading though it and they were talking contamination period of 1960, at that time, to 1986.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Chris was born right in the middle of that time.

Chris Orris: And they are talking about heart defects.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Babies born with holes in their hearts or other deformities so they can't effectively pump oxygenated blood through their bodies.

Chris Orris: And it was this eureka moment. I was like, wait a second. This completes the puzzle, why did I have this heart defect, where did it come from.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Chris well-paid banking job was putting too much stress on his renovated heart so he moved back to North Carolina to be closer to family and married a paramedic named, Lacy. She's been helping him fill in the pieces of the puzzle of Camp Lejeune's past. And not just for Chris, but for others who trace their health problems to that poisoned water at Camp Lejeune. Chris started asking lots of questions about his earliest days on earth. He shows me his baby book. Inside is his birth certificate and an old clip from a local newspaper.

Chris Orris: This, which was the announcement of my birth, became the proof of my contamination.

Elizabeth Shogr...: His father, Johnny, is devastated that his career in the military put his kid in danger.

Johnny Orris: I spent 30 years in the Marine Corps and I am proud to have served my country and I still consider myself a true patriot, but it makes me feel sad that they weren't honest with me upfront and then later on that my son would suffer and I almost lost him. That is sad because, again, the Marine Corps is honor, courage, commitment, that's their ethos. You expect them to take care of your family when you're off doing all the things that you've got to do.

Elizabeth Shogr...: It's twilight. Chris and Lacy have brought me to a military cemetery about an hour drive from the base. It's been here since the Civil War. We're looking at row after row of simple white grave stones. Many fallen Union soldiers are buried here, but mixed among them are more recent graves. Lacy reads one of them.

Lacy Orris: This one just says, infant October 25, 1972, son of, and then it lists the service member's name, USMC.

Elizabeth Shogr...: United States Marine Corps.

Chris Orris: Here's a baby. Son of Lance Corporal, who lived less than a year. Here's another. Son of Corporal. Lived for five months.

Lacy Orris: What year?

Chris Orris: 1984.

Elizabeth Shogr...: All these babies died in the '60, '70s, and '80s. That's when drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with TCE and other toxic chemicals.

Chris Orris: We're standing here at the graves of eight to 10 babies who are within five feet of you. And just half a row right here were half a dozen babies. It's astounding. There are no words for this. It's tragic, it's sad. And could you imagine the families during this time period and why didn't anybody think to ask, why so many babies, what's going on in a national cemetery that we have rows of babies.

Elizabeth Shogr...: According to data Reveal got from the National Cemetery Administration, military families buried 469 babies here in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

Chris Orris: But for the grace of a God or an almighty power or whatever you would call it, I could very easily be resting here and it's a reminder of how fortunate I am, but it's also terribly sad because so many lives were cut so short and you think about how each of these children were denied a future and what kind of a impact they could have had on the rest of us. It really makes you wonder why we don't protect our unborn children more.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Decades later there's not enough information to know whether contaminated water caused those deaths and that box Johnny remembers on the wall of his house at Camp Lejeune, now he wonders if it's a clue that the military knew far more about the risks than they were telling Marines.

Al letson: About the time that Chris was born, those other babies were dying, a doctor in Tucson was treating infants with deformed hearts at his clinic. He realized that many of them were coming from the same part of the city. When we come back, Elizabeth follows how that Tucson doctor helped spark a 20 year fight between scientists and the chemical industry. That's next on Reveal.

Al letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

Al letson: Today we're revisiting a show from earlier this year where we exposed how the Trump administration rejected science that links a chemical called TCE to infant heart defects. Scientists told us that the White House rewrote a report to downplay the dangers of TCE. Scientists have known about this risk for decades. Some of the first warning signs go all the way back to the 1970s when Chris Orris was born at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Around the same time, a cardiologist was treating babies with heart defects in Tucson and he noticed that many of the children came from the same part of the city, but he didn't know why. He got a big clue in the 1980s when TCE was found in the tap water there and around the country.

Speaker 9: An ABC News survey has found that some wells in 34 states have been shut down because a toxic chemical called TCE has been found in the water supply. ABC's Peter Lance has been investigating.

Al letson: Those wells provided tap water to the neighborhoods where the babies with heart defects were born.

Peter Lance: Since 1981, seven public wells there have been shut down.

Al letson: Once Tucson shut down its TCE contaminated wells, that cluster of babies with heart defects disappeared. But the question remained, how does TCE affect the human body? Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren goes to Tucson where scientists have been working to understand that even as the chemical industry has worked to undermine their research.

Elizabeth Shogr...: That's the sound of a heart beating on an ultrasound, one of those machines doctors use to let parents see their babies before they are born. But this isn't a human heart, it's from a chicken embryo. I'm looking at it with Professor Ray Runyon in his lab at the University of Arizona.

Professor Ray R...: You try to keep them warm because their heartbeat is down. As you can see, they are moving around a little bit.

Elizabeth Shogr...: If you've ever cracked an egg and found a yolk with some blood in it, that's kind of what this looks like. There's a dark red spot in the center with thin red lines stretching out like a web across a pool of bright yellow yolk. Each embryo floats in a glass bowl that looks like a custard cup. The bowls are covered in plastic wrap so Ray can press the ultrasound wand right up to the embryo.

Professor Ray R...: I think we have the probe sitting right over the ventricle so we're getting the contraction of the ventricle and it's pushing the blood through one of the valve openings.

Elizabeth Shogr...: A few days ago, Ray injected these chicken eggs with watered down TCE.

Professor Ray R...: This is a six day chick embryo that was treated between days two and three with 10 parts of TCE and left in the incubator to [inaudible 00:32:41] until finally we can see the heart.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Ray's a professor of cellular and molecular medicine and he talks like one. I'm constantly asking him to explain and reexplain his scientific terms and experiments. He gets pretty excited by all this stuff.

Professor Ray R...: It's actually the cardiac physiology changing and because of that, the heart is malforming from the change in the flow through the heart.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Here's what he means by that. If an embryo is exposed to TCE, the heart muscles might not develop properly so blood won't pump through the heart as strongly as it should. That can cause deformities. Ray started researching TCE in the mid 1990s. That's when that cardiologist who discovered the cluster of heart defects in kids walked into his lab.

Professor Ray R...: He said, "We have this issue with TCE. Can we do something to find out what the molecular cause is?" We started doing some experiments.

Elizabeth Shogr...: In the year 2000, Ray published his first discovery. It confirmed a link between TCE and heart problems.

Professor Ray R...: We were so proud of ourselves just seeing TCE causing an effect.

Elizabeth Shogr...: It was a breakthrough. Ray had figured out one of the ways this chemical was damaging hearts at a molecular level. What Ray hadn't grasped yet was how important TCE is to the chemical industry. Today its market size is about $350 million worldwide. That's expected to grow by $100 million by 2025. And you can find it in dry cleaners, auto repair shops, refineries and factories that make batteries or medical devices so any limit on TCE would be a big deal for the people who make and use it and that soon became obvious to Ray.

Professor Ray R...: That's the first time I discovered the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance because they wrote a rebuttal to our paper.

Elizabeth Shogr...: A rebuttal letter is how one scientist tells the whole scientific community that they think another scientist's work is wrong. Ray had never heard of this Halogenated Solvents group, he didn't even know there was such a thing. It's an interest group that lobbies for chemical manufacturers. And the letter, it criticized the way Ray conducted the study and his conclusions. He'd done lots of studies before and no one had questioned his methods. He took it personally. It felt like an attack on his integrity as a scientist.

Professor Ray R...: It was a new realm. It was kind of eye-opening. It slowed us down a little bit because, yeah, you're going to get people coming back and asking every detail of the experiments.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Ray did what he does best. He went back into his lab. He and other scientists published dozens of studies about the dangers of TCE. They did experiments in lab animals that showed how it damages fetal hearts. They studied neighborhoods contaminated with it and found more human babies born with heart defects than in other communities. And Ray discovered 4000 genes that TCE alters.

Professor Ray R...: The gene changes mean something when approximately a third of the genes expressed in your cells at a time are altered, that there has got to be a consequence on the muscle cells as they develop and so we're getting defects.

Elizabeth Shogr...: But when Ray or another scientist published a breakthrough, the chemical industry shot back. They paid lobbyists and their own scientists to dissect the studies and undermine the research. Meanwhile, year after year, the EPA failed to enact any new restrictions on TCE. And in retrospect, the industry's game plan seems obvious.

David Michaels: This is standard operating procedure by polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products.

Elizabeth Shogr...: David Michaels was the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA for President Obama. Now he's a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University. When I visit him at his Washington, DC office, he's fact checking his second book about how industries stir doubts about science.

David Michaels: When it becomes clear that a product they make or a product that's being let off into the air or into the water is making people sick, the first thing the industry does, and the trade associations especially, is to hire scientists to try to show that there is uncertainty.

Elizabeth Shogr...: He says chemical companies take their queue from other industries that have fought back against science for decades.

David Michaels: They learn from the tobacco industry that all you need to do is question the studies that are being used, and even if there are dozens and dozens of studies as there were with tobacco and as there are with TCE, by focusing on each individual study and saying, here are the flaws in this study and their other studies, we're going to ignore them for other reasons. But they don't look at the overall picture.

Elizabeth Shogr...: You might expect this from the chemical industry. There's a lot of money at stake. But what you might not expect is that government agencies also try to block regulation of TCE. Weihsueh Chiu experienced this first hand. He was working at the EPA in 2003 and leading a team of scientists. They were trying to figure out how much TCE you can safely breath, drink, or touch. But even before they could publish their findings in what's called an assessment, their work was attacked.

Weihsueh Chiu: The other federal agencies basically got a crack at EPA's assessment before it was released to the public, whereas previously, EPA will have autonomy as to developing its own assessments.

Elizabeth Shogr...: President George W. Bush let the Pentagon, NASA, and other government agencies review that assessment and they raised a lot of concerns. Today the chemical is found at 1400 military facilities and 800 super fund sites. Any new rules to clean up TCE could cost them billions of dollars. Weihsueh, who is now a toxicology professor at Texas A&M says the agencies should have stayed out of EPA's work.

Weihsueh Chiu: Because they are an interested party, I feel like they have a conflict of interest.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Weihsueh says the Pentagon and chemical companies slowed down his risk assessment by nearly a decade. In the meantime, many cleanups were stalled. Military workers and families who lived on and near bases like Camp Lejeune kept getting exposed to TCE. In 2011, Weihsueh's assessment finally came out. It was 1200 pages long. It concluded that TCE causes cancer and tiny whiffs of it early in pregnancy can potentially deform fetal hearts. Weihsueh says there was an upside to all that delay, that the industry probably hadn't intended.

Weihsueh Chiu: Ironically during that delay from 2002 through 2011 when we finally released it, the evidence got stronger and so it's a little bit ironic that actually it turned out stronger because of the delay.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Finally in 2016 Congress passed a law giving EPA more power to regulate toxic chemicals. When President Obama signed it, he said it replaced a 40 year old law that had failed to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.

Barack Obama: Only five have been banned. Five. And only a tiny percentage have even been reviewed for health and safety. The system was so complex, it was so burdensome that our country hasn't even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos, a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year. I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Obama said fixing this law was so urgent that republicans and democrats had stopped feuding and worked together.

Barack Obama: For the first time in our history, we'll actually be able to regulate chemicals effectively.

Elizabeth Shogr...: It's hard to overstate how ubiquitous TCE is, but this should give you an idea of its scope. EPA found that 300,000 people working at dry cleaners and tens of thousands of employees of small manufacturing shops are exposed to it. It's also found in the public water systems in 41 states and at those 1400 military sites we talked about. And after Obama signed the updated Toxic Substances Control Act, it was up to his EPA chief, Gina McCarthy, to decide whether to use it to restrict TCE. And the clock was ticking, she got advice from the agency's top scientist, Tom Burke.

Tom Burke: I said, "Gina, with a chemical where there is pervasive exposure and it's in the air and it's in the drinking water and it's in the indoor air, 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."

Elizabeth Shogr...: In the final days of the Obama administration, McCarthy proposed banning TCE for some uses. For instance, it would be illegal to use it at a dry cleaners or to spray it on metal parts to remove grease. But that didn't happen.

Donald Trump: I will keep working with Congress, with every agency, and most importantly with the American people until we eliminate every unnecessary harmful and job-killing regulation that we can find. We have a lot more coming.

Elizabeth Shogr...: As you can hear, President Trump made his intentions known right away. The TCE bans were dropped. Former OSHA director, David Michaels says Trump hired people at the EPA who put up a welcome sign for chemical companies.

David Michaels: There are people at the EPA and the White House who did this on the outside for industry before they came into the administration. They are going to listen much more carefully, they are going to buy what the industry is out there selling.

Elizabeth Shogr...: People like Nancy Beck, she testified before a congressional committee on behalf of chemical companies in March 2017.

Nancy Beck: I'm honored to be here today representing the American Chemistry Council. My name is Nancy Beck and I've spent over 15 years working at the intersection of science and policy.

Elizabeth Shogr...: And just a few weeks later, she took a new job heading up the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention for President Trump.

Nancy Beck: I spent most of my career working at state government, federal government. Everyone knows most recently I came from the American Chemistry Council.

Elizabeth Shogr...: The American Chemistry Council is exactly what it sounds like, an interest group for chemical companies. Before that job, Beck worked in George W. Bush's White House. A 2009 congressional investigation found that her office at the White House helped the chemical industry and the Pentagon delay Weihsueh's assessment for nearly a decade. In 2019, Beck moved from the EPA to Trump's White House. Another veteran of the American Chemistry Council replaced her. I asked for an interview with Nancy Beck and others from the Trump administration, no one would talk to me. The trade groups wouldn't talk either. But I did get an interview with someone who has been one of the biggest critics of the fetal heart research.

Elizabeth Shogr...: His name is John Deieso. I meet him at his office in Alexandria, Virginia. His wall is covered with photos of his grandkids and his screensaver.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Why do you have an embryo as your screensaver?

John Deieso: I'm an embryologist and I teach embryology at Georgetown. This is really important to me. When you watch them in the dish and their hearts are beating, you see the blood flow, you can get hypnotized by it.

Elizabeth Shogr...: There's another embryologist in this story. That's Ray Runyon, the scientist at the University of Arizona we heard from earlier. On the surface, Ray and John seem to have a lot in common. They are about the same age with silver hair and medium build, but their work couldn't be more different. Ray and his colleagues have spent the past 20 years researching TCE on behalf of universities. John, meanwhile, spent those same years working for consulting firms on behalf of chemical companies poking holes in other scientists papers, including Ray's, writing rebuttals but never doing actual lab work until now. John recently published his first lab study on TCE and he got a chance to present it at the EPA.

John Deieso: Maybe there are 15 or 20 people in the room and on the line there were, it sounded like there were about four or five.

Elizabeth Shogr...: John shows me the PowerPoint he used.

John Deieso: We made our presentation to them, talked to them about the data. They asked questions.

Elizabeth Shogr...: John told them he found no increase in heart defects from TCE. I should mention that chemical trade groups funded his research and one of his coauthors works for Dow Chemical. Why was EPA interested in your research?

John Deieso: I think it's because this is the first time there's been a very solid study that contradicted what was already published by the Arizona group.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Your research is funded by the companies that produce this chemical and have a financial interest in it being accepted and a financial interest in not cleaning it up. Does that influence your science?

John Deieso: I don't think so. The rats don't know who paid for the study. And admittedly, I'm sure they funded it because I think I had lots of reasons to believe it would not come out as a positive thing, but there's no way you're going to examine a heart, and if there is a hole in the heart, you're going to say it isn't there. It's either there or it isn't there, and as I said, that's objective.

Elizabeth Shogr...: When Ray saw John's study in a respected science journal, he was livid. This time he wrote the rebuttal. He pointed out that John's one study couldn't refute all the data from the 20 years of research he and his colleagues had done.

Professor Ray R...: I have a hard time imagining how they can sleep at night knowing that they are trying to basically roll back the standards and expose people and obviously big money gets in the way.

Elizabeth Shogr...: It's so nice to meet you, Arnella.

Arnella Selman: Nice meeting you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Shogr...: Ray introduces me to his colleague, Arnella Selman. She worked with him on TCE research for 10 years. John's paper really got to her too.

Arnella Selman: To me, it's amazing that they are just so intent to prove that these studies were wrong. They were wrong. It's a little bit too coincidental that just their study is right. Therefore, all other studies are bogus. It's not a scientific approach, I'm sorry.

Professor Ray R...: Did you see the rebuttal to our letter?

Arnella Selman: Yeah. My question is why should we risk exposing people, pregnant mothers and children to higher level of TCE before we are absolutely sure that TCE does not have that affect. Who is to benefit from it? Not the general population. The only people that I see benefit from it is those industries that want to use TCE and they don't want to spend money for cleaning up those sites.

Al letson: Back in February, right before we first aired this story, the EPA came out with its new draft assessment on how dangerous TCE is. That's the report that we mentioned at the top of the show. We found that the Trump White House directed the EPA to basically rewrite the report before releasing it. We know this because Elizabeth got a copy of an earlier draft by EPA scientists. Elizabeth told me what changed after the White House got involved.

Elizabeth Shogr...: In the draft the scientists wrote, they calculated unsafe levels of TCE based on how it might damage a fetal heart. The new draft, the one the White House changed, doesn't do that. It bases the math on how much TCE causes immune disorders and those levels are much higher, like 500 times higher. Now, Al, to give you a sense of how much this changed the report, if you take the original draft by the EPA scientists and you look for the term cardiac toxicity, you can find it more than 300 times. But if you look at that phrase in the draft that was rewritten on the direction of the White House, you don't find that term at all. It was completely eliminated. All of this matters because future regulations could be set based on these calculations. That would leave fetal hearts at risk according to EPA's own scientists.

Al letson: If the report says that TCE is dangerous and even admits that it's linked to fetal heart defects, then why is it such a big deal that the White House changed the report?

Elizabeth Shogr...: The bottom line is this could open the door for the EPA to set looser restrictions on TCE in the future. That's because scientists believe it takes only an infinitesimal amount of TCE to cause fetal heart affects. It takes more TCE to cause other problems. So to give you an idea of the scale, let's say it takes seven soda cans of TCE to cause immune problems. On that scale it would take just one teaspoon of TCE to cause fetal heart defects. So you can tell why the chemical industry would want the government to base its findings on immune problems because it could justify allowing people to use a lot more TCE and to be exposed to a lot more TCE.

Al letson: That's Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren. After Elizabeth's story first aired, it got the attention of members of Congress. During a hearing this summer, democratic senator, Maria Cantwell of Washington grilled Nancy Beck about her role in changing the EPA report. Beck is the former chemical industry lobbyist who worked at the White House.

Senator Cantwel...: So Dr. Beck, yes or no, were you involved or responsible for the direction of the White House to remove the cardiac birth defects from those documents?

Nancy Beck: Senator Cantwell, I think you're referring to an interagency review process which is, during that process the lead agency has the authority and they have the pen.

Senator Cantwel...: Did you advocate for removal of cardiac birth defect risk from those documents? Did you advocate for that? Yes or no, that's all I'm asking.

Nancy Beck: Senator, what you're asking for is deliberative information.

Al letson: Deliberative information is her way of saying, she's not going to tell us. Deliberative privilege lets the White House keep its conversations with agencies secret. The EPA still hasn't done anything to restrict TCE so companies can continue to use it at dry cleaners, auto shops, and countless other places where the chemical has been used for decades polluting communities around the country.

Al letson: This week's show was edited by Deb George and our executive producer, Kevin Sullivan. We had additional editorial support from Esther Kaplan. Our associate producer was Najeeb Amini. Claire Mullen mixed the show with help from our production manager, Amy Mostafa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando "My Man" Arruda. They had help from Mwende Hinojosa and Brett Simpson. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our theme music is by Camerado/Lightening. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Al letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

Speaker 2: Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. Introducing Allbirds apparel. Amidst the industry's sea of sameness, virgin synthetics and single use fashion, Allbird's new line of tops and outerwear stands out with premium natural materials and intention design so everyone can look better, feel better, and tread lighter on the planet. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you're wearing a product that's doing right by you and the planet. If you're looking to get a head start on holiday gifting this year, head to allbirds.com today for the perfect gift to give and receive.

Speaker 2: From PRX.