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West Virginia Scientists to EPA, CDC: Allow Your Scientists to Speak

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UPDATE: See responses below from CDC and EPA officials.

This morning, two dozen West Virginia scientists wrote to the CDC and EPA to urge the two agencies to give more freedom to their scientists to communicate with the press and public, especially during emergencies like the ongoing water contamination crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of West Virginians. “Our communities have suffered with inadequate, and sometimes conflicting, information about both long term and short term risks of exposure to the chemical,” wrote the scientists.   “If the government had been more forthcoming about what is not known about the leaked chemicals, citizens and local officials would have been able to make better choices about the actions needed to protect their families and communities.”

On January 15, Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reported that EPA took nearly a week to publicly comment on the chemical spill, refusing repeated requests for interviews and failing to show up at any government briefings. Then yesterday, January 23, the reporter finally received answers to questions he had submitted to the agency—on January 15. (Full disclosure: former UCS Scientific Integrity Program Director Francesca Grifo recently left UCS to become the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Officer).

Jeff Heath, of CMS Oilfield Services, puts water in a bucket for a resident affected by the Elk River chemical spill. As more than 300,000 people were left without water, the EPA and CDC were refusing interviews with their scientists. Photo: West Virginia National Guard

Jeff Heath, of CMS Oilfield Services, puts water in a bucket for a resident affected by the Elk River chemical spill. As more than 300,000 people were left without water, the EPA and CDC were refusing interviews with their scientists. Photo: West Virginia National Guard

The CDC’s actions were even worse. First, the agency failed to adequately explain how it arrived at a safety threshold of one part per million, and didn’t disclose that the tests it relied upon were on a pure form of the chemical, not the crude form that was leaked. Second, CDC officials told pregnant women to avoid the water—two days after officials assured the public it was safe for all. After state and water company officials told citizens not to worry about lingering chemical odors, they learned that the CDC had advised flushing all pipes until the odor was gone. Even the governor, in a press conference, said he didn’t know about the CDC’s recommendation.

All of this comes from an administration that has made scientific integrity and openness a priority, at least on paper. CDC, EPA, and several other government agencies have markedly improved media policies and scientific integrity policies. And both the CDC and EPA made policy updates that are supposed to improve the ability of government scientists to share their expertise with the public and the press.

But while these policies are technically in effect, and agency leaders have made strong commitments to transparency, the public affairs departments don’t seem to have gotten the memo, and scientists don’t feel comfortable speaking out of turn, if at all.

That’s a problem. In emergency situations, people deserve immediate access to the best available information, even if it’s tentative or incomplete. UCS’s Gretchen Goldman laid out this argument succinctly in a blog post on Tuesday:

“In times of emergencies — especially when the public health and safety may be at risk — it is essential that we let scientists speak. In situations like these, accurate and timely information needs to get to the public and allowing scientists to speak to the media without prior clearance from public affairs or other officials can allow for more comprehensive information to reach those who need it. Public affairs officers can play a coordinating role and can be informed of scientists’ communication to the media and public, but they should not act as gatekeepers that compromise our ability to understand the threats that citizens face.”

The scientists’ letter echoes criticisms from two journalism societies that the agencies contributed to public confusion and concern by repeatedly refusing interview requests and failing to disclose what they knew—and just as importantly, what they didn’t know—about the risk posed by the spilled chemicals.  In a similar letter sent earlier this week, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) wrote:

“The lack of openness during this crisis by government officials and agencies has aggravated an alarming situation and left many people doubting the competence and credibility of the people in whom their welfare is entrusted…Too often, in the interest of preventing panic or confusion, government agencies clamp down on their communication with the news media and the public. As happened in this case, a parsimonious public-affairs strategy all too often backfires, feeding people’s fear and distrust of government.”

Volunteers at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Charleston, WV distribute bottled water during the water crisis. Photo: WVUMC via Flickr

Volunteers at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Charleston, WV distribute bottled water during the water crisis. Photo: WVUMC via Flickr

This last part—about credibility—is important. Suspicion of the EPA in West Virginia is already high enough, and closing ranks during a public health crisis doesn’t create trust. Better access to agency experts would have reduced confusion and fear about water safety in West Virginia and could have built confidence in two agencies that need to safeguard their reputations as credible sources.

Encouragingly, CDC Public Affairs Director Barbara Reynolds responded to the SEJ/SPJ letter, stating the CDC officials “share your sense of urgency and commit to examining our processes to fulfill our commitment to good public health.” I hope that this examination will be meaningful and include public input. The agency also acknowledged that it should have warned pregnant women to continue not drinking the water sooner than it did, and could have better communicated uncertainties around the risks posed by the chemical spill.

To date, there has been no public response to the letter from EPA.

The silence comes at a price.

What’s particularly galling—and I’m not the first one to point this out—is a suspicion that the federal response might have been a whole lot different had the spill happened in the Hudson or Charles and not the Elk River—and left 300,000 people in New York or Boston without water for several days, and with continued uncertainty about health risk.

To be clear, because of the inadequacy of chemical safety laws, we know very little about tens of thousands of chemicals used by industry. But West Virginians would have benefited from hearing precisely how little is known.

I recognize that the CDC and EPA have a responsibility to minimize contradictory statements and, as Reynolds put it, “reach that critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information.” But they can do so without restricting access to agency experts.

Sometimes, a simple “We don’t know enough at this point to tell you if your water is safe” is information enough.

UPDATE, January 24: A few hours after this post was published, I received the following response from CDC Public Affairs Director Barbara Reynolds (who is referenced above). I appreciate the agency’s stated commitment to timely and complete response, scientist accessibility, and interest in ongoing dialogue. We know that there are many great people at CDC who work hard to get information to the public, and look forward to working with the agency to ensure that their policies are fully put into practice:

Dear Mr. Halpern,

Your January 24 email offers us the opportunity to explore CDC’s support role during a state’s public health response. In all instances, CDC’s overarching communication responsibility is to provide its scientific information to response officials, the public and media during a crisis.

CDC stands ready 24/7 to support local jurisdictions or states during a public health crisis, and that includes sharing available scientific information and making public health recommendations.

Thank you for acknowledging our initial response letter to the Society of Environmental Journalists. Please allow me to say again: CDC agrees that early, complete, and on-the-record information released to the public is the best way to foster confidence in evolving health recommendations.

In keeping with the desire for a culture of openness, by agency policy, CDC scientists may speak to members of the press about their work. Crises of this type create complex questions that deserve thoughtful, consistent and timely answers. Without question, the uncertainty inherent in some events is justifiably frustrating and this should have been readily acknowledged. Again, our commitment is to work to reach the critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information.

I appreciate you sharing our response with your members.

Sincerely,
Barbara Reynolds, Ph.D.
Director, Division of Public Affairs

UPDATE, January 30: Last night, five days after sending the scientists’ letter to EPA, I received the following response from EPA Associate Administrator for External Affairs Tom Reynolds:

Dear Mr. Halpern,

Thank you for your email regarding transparency and media access, two issues the Environmental Protection Agency — whose mission is rooted in science and dedicated to protecting public health and safeguarding the environment — takes very seriously.

As with any emergency response, EPA’s first priority is working with state and local officials to ensure the safety of the public. In the case of the West Virginia chemical spill, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is the lead agency responsible for overseeing and coordinating the response activities. EPA has offered support and continues to work closely with the state and other federal and state agencies.

EPA began receiving and responding to media inquiries regarding the spill on January 10. Since then, we have responded directly and in a timely fashion to inquiries from more than two dozen media outlets, providing information on a wide range of issues, including the agency’s role in the response, known information about the chemicals spilled, and EPA’s regulatory authorities.

As we have throughout the spill response, EPA remains committed to transparency and helping reporters and the public understand the potential risks associated with the spill, the various roles of state, local and federal governments, as well as the role of the company involved, in responding to an environmental disaster.

Regards,

Tom Reynolds
Environmental Protection Agency
Associate Administrator for External Affairs

Unfortunately, Mr. Reynolds sidesteps the substance of the letter’s request—that scientists be able to speak to the press and the public without interference. Unlike in the CDC’s response above, there is no affirmation of scientists’ rights to speak to the press, as well as no commitment to examining the agency’s own practices to improve responsiveness.

Instead, he intimates that agency employees should defer to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the lead agency responding to the disaster, in ensuring public safety. During normal times, this is unacceptable. During a crisis, it is irresponsible. EPA can simultaneously support state and local officials while sharing its experts with the public. In the hours and days that West Virginians were left without an adequate response from EPA (and CDC and DEP) scientists, they were denied knowledge that could have helped them to make more informed personal health decisions. As noted above, Ken Ward, who has been reporting tirelessly for the Charleston Gazette on the spill, had to wait several days for the EPA to respond to his questions.

EPA has many, many toxicologists and exposure scientists who can help the public understand risk. The EPA has a responsibility to make them available. Bottling them up in bureaucracy does a disservice to the public and undermines the agency’s public health mission. Importantly, the agency’s internal policies affirm scientists’ right to speak out. The agency needs to turn this policy into practice.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , , , ,

About the author: Michael Halpern is an expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression, manipulation, and distortion of government science. See Michael's full bio.

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7 Responses

  1. G. Paul Richter says:

    Jim Kotcon’s comments about using LD50 rather than data on impaired health (in contrat to death of 50% of the test subjects is an important point. What is equally or more important is the apparent lack of short- or long-term health on any test mammal. I downloaded MSDSs from two different manufacturers, and one claims “No data” for all toxicological properties it cites and the same for physical properties, which is unbelievable. Their product is a mixture of the cis- and trans-isomers and is nominally free of other substances, apparently.. The other MSDS is for the “crude” MCHM and gives a range of %s for each of the six components, of which MCHM (mixture of two isomers, presumably) is the major one (68–89%). What does that company’s toxicological information really mean with six components, each with its own characteristic properties? What about the components’ interactions within the human system when they are all together? I doubt that any one knows, not even the manufacturer’s in-house toxicologists. None of the preceding has been revealed to the public.

    Aother problem when the scientists or their spokespeople communicate with the laity: Clearly stating how risk is assessed and what the results mean in terms that are understandable to a scientifically naive public.

  2. James Kotcon says:

    A large part of the public uncertainty and fear over this chemical is associated with the odor, and the skin, eye, and respiratory irritation it causes. Sensitive individuals have reported symptoms of chemical burns, nausea, and eye and throat irritation after using the water.

    Unfortunately, CDC’s earliest recommendations used LD50 as an endpoint for determining a safe level, and did not consider these other health outcomes, which magnified the distrust of the 1 PPM level proposed. Just because you don’t die from it, an odor associated with chemical burns and nausea will inevitably raise justifiable concerns about the safety of the water.

    This seems like an error that a professional toxicologist should have recognized fairly quickly, at which point the message should have shifted from fatalities to other health outcomes. This error in endpoints was exacerbated by the error of focusing on a single chemical constituent instead of the full range of compounds in “Crude MCHM”, their breakdown products, and the interactions among all those compounds.

    The net result is that CDC spent days and weeks either in silence, or in a futile attempt to justify their previous statements. Any one who smelled the water and felt the burning eyes or throat knew instantly that something about that recommendation was incorrect.

    Finally, the public relations effort to rely on a single number to express risk was a PR disaster. As scientists, we know that sensitivities among people vary, and a single number is unlikely to be a realistic expression of risk. I look for both a mean and a variance, and agency scientists should be allowed, and even directed, to communicate that range of sensitivities to officials, reporters, and the general public.

    Distrust is much harder to overcome than ignorance, and silence breeds distrust.

  3. Michael Halpern says:

    I agree that good risk communication is essential to building public trust and giving people information that is useable. But during a crisis, there is a responsibility to communicate what is known and what is not known about a chemical. People who are making decisions about whether to drink/bathe/wash clothes in contaminated water can’t afford to wait a few days for the various scientists and scientific agencies to come up with a consensus recommendation. In terms of a bioaccumulative toxin such as methylmercury, the timeline can be a little longer. But it is still helpful for people to know what is being done to arrive at a consensus.

    To be clear, nobody is recommending that scientists make specific threshold recommendations without sufficient information. Allowing scientists to simply explain that we don’t know much about the chemical in question is helpful to reporters and members of the public trying to make decisions about their own health. Scientists who have appropriate training can be very adept at explaining what answers they have now, and what steps they are taking to come to a consensus. This information helps people plan.

    Three weeks after the chemical leak was made public, some reporters *still* have yet to speak on the record with EPA scientists (completely unacceptable), and the CDC acknowledged that it could have handled the risk communication better. Here, transparency in real time is key.

    Finally, EPA policies affirm employees’ rights to speak about any issue they would like in a personal capacity. So long as a scientist makes clear that he or she is not speaking on behalf of the agency, he or she should be able to offer a personal opinion about risk to the public or what should be done. This is especially important for conversations that scientists can have with reporters that are on background, or not for attribution, that helps reporters better understand what an agency is doing.

  4. Charles Miller says:

    One of the important elements of the response to a chemical spill of this nature is risk communication. It is important for federal agencies and their scientists to give a single message to government officials and the public. With relatively unstudied chemicals, as was the case in the WV spill, there is little toxicity and risk information. If you asked 10 risk assessors for an answer regarding the risk to public health you probably would have gotten 10 different answers. If you give all these answers to the public it magnifies the suspicion and mistrust. It is important to present a consensus answer on the risk question to the public. For years EPA and FDA had documents that reported different values for the amounts of seafood (containing methylmercury) that could be “safely consumed” based on their different risk assessments. The public had two expert agencies giving two different answers to the question. Which one should they believe? Today the agencies produce a harmonized risk assessment and suggest the same limits for safety. It is important that a clear message be given to the people in WV, and you won’t get that result if you speak to individual scientists right after a spill and then broadcast lots of opinions (and news agencies seem to highlight the assessments that promise the greatest morbidity and mortality). CDC/ATSDR released the first information, so it is important that the response from EPA does not undermine the first message unless it was grossly inaccurate. It typically takes a few days for the various scientists to read all the literature that’s available, put the data and gaps in data together, and reach a “best conclusion” that can be disseminated to governmental officials and the public.

  5. LaDonna Saria says:

    The EPA missed a golden opportunity to elbow it’s way to the frontline and overthrow the coal lords, their paid off politicians, and the ever inept state regulators.

  6. Michael Halpern says:

    Hi Paul,

    First, the CDC administrator is also the head of ATSDR, and although ATSDR is an independent agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC performs many of its administrative functions. ATSDR has a joint office with the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

    Second, the CDC–and other scientists–can’t yet claim without reservation that the 1ppm level of MCHM is safe. To his credit, eventually, the CDC director wrote that although CDC scientists were recommending 1ppm as a safety threshold, “due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, you may wish to consider [an] alternative drinking water source for pregnant women until the chemical is at non-detectable levels.”

    Third, I’m aware that ATSDR’s advisory referenced that the agency did not consider the lingering odors to be a public health problem. But the agency did recommend that consumers flush their systems to get rid of the odor–in a message not to the public but to state officials that was obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. People were worried about the safety of their water because of the smell. If this message that it was not a safety concern had come directly from the experts, the public’s fear may have been quelled more quickly.

    There’s absolutely no reason for this message to go from a federal agency to a state agency to reporter (obtained under FOIA) to the public. Delays matter.

    Finally, I’m not attempting to make specific claims about the relative threat to public safety. I’m pointing out that too many barriers exist that hamper the free flow of information in times of crisis, with potential consequences both for public health and for public faith in government. I’m also pointing out that the public can benefit from understanding just how little we know about chemicals, and what steps are being taken both to protect the public and know more.

    The information provided to the public has been unclear. I’m not trying to frighten people, but to encourage agencies to be more forthcoming with information. These are not inaccurate claims regarding public safety but real concerns.

  7. Paul Epstein says:

    If you read the e-mail from, not the CDC, but the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that Charleston Gazette reporter, Ken Ward, reported on, you’ll find they were giving instructions for additional flushing to get rid of the lingering odor, but not suggesting that it was a health concern. Ward’s article goes on to say, “Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety… said that the federal recommendation for flushing duration was not aimed at any public health issues, but only at the odor question.” The CDC has set safe levels at below 1 ppm but the chemical odor can still be detected at levels of 10 parts/billion and possibly less (levels that are non-detectible by the current testing methods being used). I find it irresponsible of you and others to frighten the public with some of the types of inaccurate claims you are making regarding public safety.