When Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists concluded that the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) causes fetal heart defects, even at low doses, officials at the White House overrode their conclusions—an egregious example of political interference in science, and a violation of the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) submitted a formal complaint to the EPA, urging the agency’s scientific integrity office to investigate.
UCS is no stranger to tactics like these. For decades, we’ve tracked inappropriate political meddling in science-based decisionmaking, and we’ve followed the Trump administration’s attacks on science for more than three years. However, few examples better showcase the extent of this administration’s interference than this: officials’ thorough, calculated erasure of scientists’ efforts to protect the nation’s youngest people—infants.
But what exactly happened, and why is political interference like this a problem?
The White House rewrote the risk evaluation for a toxic chemical
Scientists have known for decades that TCE is dangerous. At high doses, the chemical – a sweet-smelling liquid used in degreasers, lubricants, and stain removers—has been linked to a range of devastating health outcomes, including liver, kidney, and testicular cancer; leukemia and lymphoma; and immune diseases like lupus.
Industry easily explains away these links. The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance (HSIA), a trade association that represents makers and users of TCE, praises the chemical’s “long history of safe use” and calls its links to cancer “erroneous.” Meanwhile, Westlake Chemical Corp., a TCE manufacturer in the US, stresses that “chronic overexposure” is to blame for these diseases, not run-of-the-mill, low-dose exposure (the sort of low doses found, for example, in 14 million Americans’ drinking water).
But scientists have also long identified serious outcomes of low levels of exposure—most alarmingly, fetal heart defects. In 2003, a landmark study found that even trace amounts of TCE led to “cardiac malformations” in developing rat embryos, like missing arteries and valve defects. Since then, more than a dozen animal studies have corroborated these findings, and epidemiological research suggests that TCE also causes these defects in humans. In 2011, the EPA conducted its own toxicological review and ultimately proposed a ban on several uses of TCE.
Under President Trump’s EPA, these proposed bans were buried, but scientists persevered. In December 2019, EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) conducted a draft risk evaluation of TCE, which used fetal heart defects as a baseline for determining unsafe exposure levels. Given that heart malformation “is the effect that is most sensitive,” it reads, “it is expected that addressing risks for this effect would address other identified risks.”
But this draft evaluation never went public.
An investigation by Reveal outlines what happened to it, and how things went wrong—namely, when the document reached the White House’s Executive Office of the President (EOP). The EPA routinely sends its evaluations to other agencies for review, but the EOP’s “review” was far from routine: in unsigned emails and anonymous redline edits, EOP officials directed EPA scientists to discard the science on TCE’s role in fetal heart defects.
The EOP-edited version pays lip service to TCE’s connection to heart defects but notes “uncertainties which decrease EPA’s confidence in this endpoint.” The better bet, the new version continues, is to rely on immunosuppression, or the weakening of the immune system, as the baseline for “unreasonable risk.”
However, the exposure levels at which TCE triggers immunosuppression is almost 500 times higher than the levels found to trigger congenital heart defects. In other words, the EOP changes echo a common industry argument: TCE might be linked to poor health outcomes, but only at very high or chronic exposures. To cement this reversal, the White House deleted every one of the scientists’ 322 uses of the phrase “cardiac toxicity,” and bumped up mentions of “immunosuppression” more than 30-fold.
We don’t know for sure who orchestrated these changes, but we have our suspicions. Nancy Beck, a former lobbyist for one of the chemical industry’s largest trade associations, began working at EPA under the Trump administration. There, she worked to unravel regulations for a suite of dangerous chemicals, from IQ-stunting PBDEs (“Are [these] disturbances actually adverse?”) to cancer-causing arsenic (“There did not appear to be agreement regarding human health risks at low dose exposures”). In June 2019, Beck was quietly detailed to the White House office that—only a few months later—overrode scientists’ findings in the TCE evaluation.
On February 21, 2020, OCSPP’s “official” risk evaluation—which included the White House’s revisions—was released for public comment. It underwent a four-day peer review in late March, despite calls to delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public commenters slammed the evaluation: scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund emphasized that experts had “reexamined and reaffirmed” TCE’s link to cardiac defects, and David Michaels, epidemiologist and former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, criticized the EPA for assuming that workers exposed to TCE wear protective equipment. Many don’t, he said, making the evaluation “fundamentally, fatally flawed.”
UCS reported this scientific integrity violation to the EPA
The EPA, like many agencies, has a Scientific Integrity Policy that protects government science from political interference. When scientific integrity is violated, government employees or the public can report these incidents—and that’s exactly what we did. Earlier this month, we formally reported this violation to the EPA. In our complaint, we wrote:
According to the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, it is essential “that the scientific information and processes relied upon in policymaking manifest scientific integrity, quality, rigor, and objectivity,” and that “political or other officials [do] not suppress or alter scientific findings.” The EOP’s direct changes to EPA scientists’ risk evaluation violate these provisions. They demonstrate that this scientific work was not “free from political interference or personal motivations,” that EPA scientists were unable to “represent [their] own work fairly and accurately,” and that scientists were unable to “avoid conflicts of interest and ensure impartiality.” The White House’s alterations void these scientists’ expertise and independence and directly oppose EPA’s scientific integrity policy.
By interfering in science, the White House imperils public health
Political officials can weigh and make policy decisions—this is their job, for better or worse. But this job does not and must not extend to science, the integrity and independence of which protect public health and preserve public trust. Risk evaluations are no exception. EPA’s chemical risk evaluations help determine if, how, and to what extent a chemical could threaten human health, and whether the EPA should control or stop its use and manufacture. It is crucial, therefore, that these evaluations rely on the best available science.
For TCE, the influence of this evaluation will be enormous. The chemical is still used extensively in consumer and industrial contexts, and it persists even where use has subsided. It leaches into groundwater and contaminates the drinking water of millions of Americans. It has been found on 1,400 military bases and nearly 800 Superfund sites, and babies born to mothers who live near TCE-emitting facilities are at increased risk of congenital heart defects. By burying the science on TCE’s danger, EPA not only allows its continued use, but also blunts future efforts to restrict, ban, or enforce more stringent safety thresholds for TCE. And for sites already contaminated, the evaluation creates the regulatory scaffolding to protect industry from the enormous liability of clean-up.
We urge the EPA’s scientific integrity office to right this wrong. When political officials warp science in deference to the wants of industry, public health suffers—especially the health of the nation’s most vulnerable. We all deserve better.