People like Hope Grosse know first-hand the public health effects of per-fluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, having seen their family and fellow community members fall ill, seemingly out of nowhere. These substances, which include but are not limited to PFOA and PFOS, have been used in firefighting foam at military bases around the country for decades – since the early 1970s – leading to groundwater contamination in surrounding areas and to related health problems, including thyroid issues, cancer, and birth defects.
After noticing extensive health problems emanating from the nearby naval base in Warminster, PA, Grosse and her fellow community members filed a lawsuit against PFC manufacturers. Relatedly, on the other side of the country, a class-action suit involving 91 plaintiffs was filed in the US District Court of Eastern Washington, also against manufacturers. Despite the growing concern around these issues, the US government has been all but silent, refusing to take substantive action to remediate the issue and blocking an EPA study that would lower the toxicity threshold for PFCs.
Referring to the study as a “public relations nightmare,” an unnamed White House aide strongly urged members of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to forestall publication, saying in an email, “The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge.” The aid continued: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”
No Plans to Release Study
That email was forwarded by James Herz, of the Office of Management and Budget, on January 30th. Since then, there has been no signal that the study will be released anytime soon. Democratic politicians have come out against the administration’s overtly political move to suppress a document that pertains to the health of all those living in the US.
Thinking of people like Hope Grosse, Senator Maggie Hassan (a Democrat from New Hampshire) responded to the Politico report, saying: “Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health, and vitality of communities across our country.”
Ethically Questionable Motivation
Judith Enck, formerly of the EPA, decried the administration’s censorship as “brazenly political,” continuing, “Scientists always debate each other, but under the law, ATSDR is the agency that’s supposed to make health recommendations.” Pruitt has already been under the microscope for potential ethical violations, having flown first class for all business-related trips. He has also spent a significant amount of money on security – almost twice as much as previous administrators – and there are questions regarding his $50 per night condo on Capitol Hill, which he’s renting from the wife of an energy lobbyist. Pruitt has also taken it upon himself to shake up the EPA advisory panel, replacing civil servants with industry representatives.
The Draft Study
According to emails intercepted by Politico, the draft study, yet to be published, suggests that PFC levels might be dangerous at levels much lower than previously thought. Currently, the toxicity threshold remains 70 parts-per-trillion – that’s equivalent to 70 grains of sand in an Olympic sized pool. According to the unpublished ATSDR study, less than a sixth of the 70 ppt standard could be dangerous for women who are breast feeding and infants.
This isn’t the first time an administration has interfered with government-sponsored scientific studies. The George W. Bush administration was well-known for this kind of behavior. In 2005, it came to light that the DoD, together with the White House and the EPA, doctored research pertaining to perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel that has been linked to contaminated water sources affecting 20 million people. Documents released during a lawsuit and through FOIA requests revealed efforts by the administration to redact thousands of pages of documents. The DoD and the federal government, then as now, have been attempting to avoid the burden of cleaning up these contaminated sites. One Pentagon report recently disclosed that 126 bases around the country may be linked to PFC contamination.
Despite the disclosures and lawsuits, the government continues to deny any wrongdoing, pressing the narrative that they are simply looking out for the interests of all “stakeholders” – where “stakeholders” clearly refers to profit-motivated industries.