Last week, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the chemical industry’s trade association, submitted a highly deceptive petition challenging the EPA’s June decision to set significantly stricter health advisories for four PFAS chemicals. In its statement about the petition, the group claimed to support the development of drinking water standards for the PFAS chemicals PFOA PFOS, PFBS, and GenX. But it speciously charged that EPA was failing to ensure “the scientific integrity of its process.”
When I saw ACC’s allegations, coming just as the EPA has finally began the long-overdue process of using the best available science to set enforceable drinking water standards, I was appalled by the irony and the injustice. At federal agencies, scientific integrity policies are meant to protect federal scientists from political interference and other forms of censorship and suppression and to ensure that agencies are properly incorporating science into their decisionmaking processes. The ACC and its alumni (including former head of EPA’s chemicals office, Nancy Beck) have notoriously been involved in numerous incidents of political interference, manipulation or suppression of EPA scientific processes and documents at the EPA and beyond.
These breaches of scientific integrity didn’t happen in a vacuum. As ACC and PFAS manufacturers denied, silenced, and lied, thousands of chemicals in the class have made their way into our waterways, air, soil, homes, and our children’s bodies. Now as the body of evidence of the harms associated with this class of chemicals grows larger, ACC is ramping up its attempts to delay the important work finally underway at EPA to protect the public.
A persistent danger
PFAS, the class of persistent chemicals that have made their way into myriad consumer products and are found in all of our bodies and even in rainwater across the globe, have been linked to a long list of health problems including certain types of cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility thyroid disease, excess weight gain, decreased antibody response to vaccines, and lower birth weight in infants. People living near facilities and military sites releasing or contaminated with PFAS, especially communities of color and low-income communities, are impacted the most. And for many of these communities, PFAS exposure adds to an already long list of cumulative impacts with which they are unjustly burdened.
PFAS have evaded regulation for decades thanks to their manufacturers’ unscrupulous disinformation campaigns. Companies and trade associations such as DuPont, Chemours, 3M, and the American Chemistry Council have collectively used every play in the Disinformation Playbook to undermine science, capture regulatory agencies, and delay or thwart the regulatory progress to protect people from these toxic chemicals.
In fact, the American Chemistry Council practically wrote the playbook for interfering with science-based policy. The 2015 UCS report, Bad Chemistry, analyzed the many ways the trade association delayed or stifled important scientific information from becoming public or informing safeguards that would actually protect people from harmful chemical exposures.
EPA’s scientific integrity
UCS has long advocated that agencies institute firewalls to protect scientists from political interference, harassment, and suppression of their work. Principles of scientific integrity begin with a commitment to independent science. Independent science encompasses processes such as peer review and conflict-of-interest disclosure; transparent decisionmaking, including public access to government science and its use in policymaking; and scientific free speech, especially the right of government scientists to share research, express their personal views, and report abuses without fear of retaliation.
The health advisories issued by the EPA for PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and PFBS came after a long and thorough review of the body of evidence, specifically using human exposure studies; it is a body of evidence that has grown significantly in recent years. Health advisories are not regulatory instruments and are not enforceable by the agency. They are technical documents that can be updated as new information becomes available. So, as the EPA evaluated the new data, it grew concerned about the public health implications and chose to issue interim updated health advisories for PFOA and PFOS white it awaited peer review.
In this case, the agency’s consideration of human health data resulted in a finding that the so-called “safe” level of exposure to PFAS in drinking water is orders of magnitude lower than it had been previously (17,500x and 3,500x more stringent than the previous levels for PFOA and PFOS, respectively). Although health advisories can’t be used to require water utilities to monitor for PFOA and PFOS at these levels, they can help trigger actions when testing does reveal unsafe levels and can be used be used as safety thresholds by other EPA branches conducting remediation of PFAS contamination at Superfund sites, for example. EPA is balancing the urgency of following the best available science to protect public health while ensuring it’s following a scientifically rigorous process.
ACC’s misleading petition claims that a breach of scientific integrity occurred when EPA moved forward to release health advisories without incorporating the comments it received from its advisors at the Science Advisory Board (SAB. But, in this case, the advisors wrote broadly about methodological issues with EPA assessments, but didn’t specifically point to any problems or errors in the PFAS analyses themselves. When scientists are examining a study or a set of studies, it is normal for them to find and report ways that the study’s methodology can be improved – scientists are literally trained to do that throughout their education – but it is another thing when scientists reach a conclusion that there are fundamental problems in a study that discredits its findings. The written comments from the SAB workgroup came with the following disclaimer on each page: “NOTICE: This is a compilation of individual quality review comments. These comments do not reflect consensus advice or recommendations, have not been reviewed or approved by the chartered SAB, and do not represent EPA policy. Do not Cite or Quote.” [Emphasis added.]
The reason this disclaimer appears on the workgroup memo is that the SAB’s individual written comments or oral comments in meetings are opinions of individual advisors, not of the full SAB. Scientific advisory committee meetings routinely include these types of differing opinions and rich discussions; they are a normal part of the scientific process. EPA still plans to incorporate feedback received from the SAB as it works to develop enforceable drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. But updating its health advisories when it did was a matter of fulfilling its mission to protect public health and the environment.
EPA’s work should, of course, continue to be scrutinized by its science advisors, stakeholders, and members of the public. But constructive feedback offered by advisors to help improve a scientific assessment should never be used as evidence—as ACC is attempting to do–that EPA’s scientific work vilates scientific integrity best practices.
Industry shouldn’t define scientific integrity
To be clear, the EPA is not immune from scientific integrity issues. This was especially true during the Trump administration when 59 out of the 205 attacks on science tracked by UCS occurred the agency. Under the Biden administration, former EPA staff scientist whistleblowers from the chemicals office have reported issues related to industry influence and pressure to weaken scientific conclusions to appease chemical manufacturers.
Violations of scientific integrity are perennial and the motivations to go after inconvenient scientific findings will always be there. But that’s why we have scientific integrity policies, scientific integrity officers, inspectors general, and Congressional oversight committees. If there are indeed issues with EPA’s PFAS health advisory process, those gaps can be filled and transparency restored through oversight, peer review, public comment and collegial feedback.
ACC has no business masquerading as the scientific integrity police for federal agencies. My advice is that they should instead direct their attention and vast resources to the integrity of their own operations. Alternately, they could pay for the collective damage their breaches of scientific integrity have caused those impacted by PFAS and a host of other hazardous chemicals.