Administrator Wheeler is Hiding the Truth About Formaldehyde

April 19, 2019 | 2:40 pm
Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

In a letter sent this week, the Union of Concerned Scientists along with the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Protection Network asked EPA’s Scientific Integrity office to investigate what seems to be political interference that occurred at the EPA in its recent suspension of the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) formaldehyde risk assessment. In his responses to senators’ questions about the assessment earlier this year, Wheeler claimed that “Formaldehyde was not identified as a top priority.” Political appointees at the agency gave the same answer when asked by the GAO, in a recent report. But, in documents obtained through FOIA request, the Union of Concerned Scientists found evidence that EPA staff was not only interested in the formaldehyde risk assessment, but as of 2017 the air office had a “strong interest in the review and are anxious to see it completed” and told EPA’s acting science advisor, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta that “we have consistently identified formaldehyde as a priority.” Thus, the glaring omission of formaldehyde among the EPA’s list of prioritized chemicals issued this month smells more like political interference than lack of importance to me.

In a 2017 email obtained through FOIA request by the Union of Concerned Scientists,, an EPA staffer from the air office writes that formaldehyde is a priority for the program.

What happened to the formaldehyde assessment?

We know that the formaldehyde assessment was done and ready for review in the fall of 2017 and then all movement of the draft mysteriously stopped. In July 2017, the head of the National Center for Environmental Assessment which houses IRIS, Dr. Tina Bahadori, wrote to the former Office of Research and Development (ORD) head, Richard Yamada and other ORD staff to talk about a briefing that would occur that month on formaldehyde, and to inform them that “we have contracted the [National Academy of Sciences] to peer review this assessment. As a part of that agreement, we have requested that they convene a PUBLIC workshop in which they also gather data on NCEA/IRIS activities to be responsive to the NRC 2011 and 2014 recommendations to improve IRIS assessments.” The latter part of this agreement occurred in February 2018, but if the NAS was contracted to peer review the assessment, why did the EPA fail to follow through with moving the formaldehyde assessment to the next stage of the process if it was ready and the path was set?

Wheeler wrote this year that the EPA’s air and chemicals offices didn’t provide a list of priorities to him when he asked in 2018. But a non-response doesn’t mean the air office is lacking in priorities. A responsible administrator would follow-up with the program office pointing out the many hazardous air pollutants that have outdated risk values, including formaldehyde. Unless, of course, the administrator was actively working to keep formaldehyde off of the priority list to placate the chemical industry.

After all, the facts haven’t changed—formaldehyde is just as dangerous today as it was a year ago. It seems that political appointees at the EPA are playing a game of defeat-by-delay—willfully remaining ignorant of the facts by simply declining to to listen to the scientific opinions of their own staff experts.

Unfortunately for these appointees, they have a job to do—protect public health, based on the best available science. And they can’t evade their duties by pretending science doesn’t exist. That’s why we have scientific integrity policies in place—to make sure political interests don’t overrule the clear facts and the public good.

Emails show experts’ concern—and political leaders’ indifference

In the aforementioned email from the director of the Health and Environmental Impacts Division at the Office of Air Quality and Planning Services (OAQPS), Erika Sasser, to Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, she lays out how an updated risk assessment for formaldehyde would help the air office better protect public health. According to her, “having a current cancer unit risk estimate for formaldehyde is critical for the agency’s air toxics program, for use in 1) the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), 2) the Clean Air Act (CAA) section 112 risk and technology review (RTR) rulemakings, 3) evaluation of potential risks from on-road and nonroad mobile sources regulated under relevant sections of the CAA, and 4) regional and local-scale risk assessments.” Formaldehyde is not just an incidental air pollutant. Sasser wrote that, “more than 1.3 million tons of formaldehyde are emitted each year. While these emissions are from both natural sources and from stationary mobile anthropogenic sources, the [National Emissions Inventory] estimates that 42,000 industrial facilities emit formaldehyde. The National Air Toxics Assessments (NATA) shows that the entire US population is exposed to formaldehyde.” Sasser’s email was seen by politicals at the agency, forwarded to ORD’s Yamada by Bahadori.

In other documents we received from the EPA, it is clear that Dr. Bahadori spent months trying to get Yamada’s attention to the formaldehyde assessment and its release. In September, the American Chemistry Council wrote a letter to IRIS related to its draft formaldehyde assessment. NCEA’s Bahadori wrote back to the American Chemistry Council’s in October 2017 saying “we hope to complete the draft of this assessment as expeditiously as possible and make it available for public comment and peer review by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)” and “the only way to demonstrate our commitment to a scientifically robust and transparent formaldehyde assessment is to present the document for public comment and rigorous peer review by the NAS.”

On December 7, 2017, Bahadori wrote to Orme-Zavaleta and Yamada, “Just checking to see if you have an update on path forward for formaldehyde?” She followed up on December 20, 2017: “I wanted to follow up on the path forward for formaldehyde.” After getting a non-committal response from Orme-Zavaleta, Bahadori followed up again on January 2, 2018, “I wanted to follow up and see what the timeline for next steps might be for formaldehyde.” Bahadori was clearly doing her best to push the study through the political roadblock and was ignored. Now, she is being moved away from the IRIS program through the Office of Research and Development reorganization, which sources have told InsideEPA (paywalled), is likely as a result of her “efforts to advance IRIS.” Only in today’s EPA is the penalty for defending one’s own scientific program to be moved far away from leading that very group.

Dr. Tina Bahadori tried multiple times to get the former ORD head, Richard Yamada, interested in moving the IRIS formaldehyde assessment through the publication process.

A risk assessment caught up in layers of interference

We know the draft is done and was completed using rigorous scientific review methods, so why not just move it to peer review and public comment? The answer is simple: industry doesn’t like the findings that formaldehyde is a carcinogen. This assessment has been held up for over a decade thanks to pushback from the American Chemistry Council, that we have documented as a part of our Disinformation Playbook. And now, thanks to corporate capture of the current administration, top political officials appear to be doing the same thing from the inside to benefit their former employers and cronies. Former ORD head, Richard Yamada, was previously employed by long-time IRIS and formaldehyde-study-critic Lamar Smith. Current ORD head, David Dunlap, is a former staffer with Koch Industries of which a major formaldehyde emitter, Georgia Pacific, is a subsidiary. He has recused himself from matters pertaining to formaldehyde, but the agency’s track record on sticking to ethics agreements doesn’t give me the utmost confidence in his pledge.

Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA had a long list of industry clients (subscription required) at his lawfirm before joining the agency, and has been ignoring offers from his own scientists to brief him on the chemical. And let’s not forget Nancy Beck, a former American Chemistry Council staffer now responsible for implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) who has spent her tenure at the EPA checking industry’s demands of its wishlist. Formaldehyde will now be taken on by her office, which will mean a longer timeframe and a less comprehensive risk evaluation.

EPA’s scientific integrity office must investigate

As we write in our letter, “The completion and release of the IRIS assessment on formaldehyde would help inform science-based EPA regulations to better protect public health from this chemical. Conversely, permitting the suppression of this study to persist unchecked normalizes political interference at the agency and sends a message to career staff that their knowledge and expertise is not valued.” The EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy “prohibits all EPA employees, including scientists, managers, and other Agency leadership, from suppressing, altering, or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific information.” The public has the right to know whether this has occurred in the suspension of the formaldehyde risk assessment at the EPA. Every day that goes by without the scientific information informing new technology and standards that could reduce formaldehyde exposure and related health risks is an egregious affront to the agency’s mission to protect public health.

Check out the rest of the documents we received from the EPA related to formaldehyde here.