Jayne DePotter spent almost a decade making her Michigan jewelry studio a second home for young artists seeking direction, seniors looking to exercise their hands and minds and new immigrants in search of community.
And then she started to get sick. First came the brain fog, then the painful kidney and bladder symptoms.
“It feels like I have a bladder infection all the time,” DePotter said.
It was only after her doctor put her on cancer watch that state inspectors found a tank of toxic chemicals under the floor of a neighboring shop.
One of the chemicals, a degreaser called trichloroethylene (TCE), is dangerous enough to humans that the Obama administration sought to ban its use as a spot treatment in dry cleaning. It has been linked with the organ problems DePotter experienced, as well as cancer and birth defects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says: “TCE is carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure.”
Donald Trump’s EPA, though, has chosen not to finalize the ban, one win among many for the powerful chemicals lobby whose former advocates have been appointed to senior jobs inside the regulator since his election.
The EPA could take years to review TCE, one of the first 10 chemicals it will consider under an update to US chemical laws. And internal emails obtained by the Sierra Club in a public records lawsuit reveal the industry wanted to go even further and to also relax guidelines for quickly cleaning up contaminated sites.
Documents analysed by the Guardian show industry lobbying against the science linking illnesses and TCE and two other controversial chemicals – formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium.
Pushing back on stricter TCE clean-ups
In June 2017, the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) senior director Stephen Risotto in a letter asked the agency to “suspend the implementation” of a 2014 EPA memo laying out how regulators should hasten TCE cleanups.
As one of 56 lobbyists working for ACC in Washington in 2018, Risotto used an approach that non-industry chemicals experts and campaigners for stricter regulation said they encounter frequently.
Risotto criticized the science behind the rules and said the cleanups were costing companies. He contested the low dose at which EPA assumes TCE poses a risk, particularly to women of child-bearing age.
“The results on which the policy relies have not been reproduced in better conducted studies,” Risotto said in the letter.
Then deputy assistant administrator Patrick Davis, a political appointee, said no, but he suggested the EPA might revisit that decision later as part of a separate process. Under a new law meant to encourage more chemicals testing, the EPA is moving some chemical reviews from its risk assessment program to its toxics program, which is run by a former industry official.
Risotto didn’t give up, however, and a few months later escalated the issue to Kell Kelly, a close aide to the EPA’s former administrator, Scott Pruitt. In December 2017, Kelly had a meeting with Risotto and three other industry representatives, according to emails.
ACC spokesman Jonathan Corley, in a response to the Guardian’s queries about the lobbying effort, said the basis for the cleanup rules is “contrary to the conclusions reached by most other scientists”.
The ACC disputed claims it sowed doubt about science, saying it “worked to advance the use of rigorous, objective and peer-reviewed science as the foundation of responsible public policy and regulation of chemicals”.
For now, the TCE guidelines stand, and EPA says it does not currently have plans to review them. But that may not hold true. Manufacturers of the chemical continue to oppose the core study behind TCE regulations, which found that rats exposed to even very small amounts of the chemical in utero developed cardiac malformations.
The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, which represents TCE users and makers, funded its own study to try to show that the rat research can’t be replicated. “A single flawed study should not be the basis for the toxicological value that serves as the basis for regulation,” the group said in 2017 comments to the EPA. Jennifer Sass, a senior chemicals expert at the environmental advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council, said while the study did prompt some “reasonable criticisms”, about a dozen others backed up its findings.
Sass said the industry is fighting the research because the EPA used it to assume that a developing fetus might be at risk with even very low levels of exposure for a short period of time.
In a response to the Guardian, the industry alliance argued the research has been “widely criticized”, including by the California Environmental Protection Agency. The group insisted the chemical is safe if used appropriately and does not increase the risk of cardiac malformations or other developmental problems.
Up to 4,000 ‘vapor intrusion’ sites
DePotter, who is 56, has been wracked with guilt thinking about the young women who have spent days each week metalworking in her studio in a strip mall in affluent Franklin. She was shocked to hear that the industry would try to weaken cleanup rules for the chemical. She knows one of her students had bladder cancer and another had frequent bladder infections. After the contamination was revealed, she closed the studio and refunded tuition rather than risk anyone else getting sick, she said.
“You don’t know you’re breathing them in and you don’t know later in life what kind of damage is done to your body,” DePotter said. “I think it’s ridiculous to roll back the guidelines.”
Michigan officials have said there could be as many as 4,000 so-called “vapor intrusion” sites in the state, where invisible chemicals might be seeping into the air people breathe indoors.
In one Indiana town with underground TCE pollution, parents whose children developed rare cancers accuse the EPA of “serious mismanagement”. Other states, including New York and Wyoming, are struggling with polluted sites too. Without federal restrictions, Minnesota has debated banning TCE on its own.
Chemicals experts outside the industry say the lobbying efforts on TCE demonstrate the strategies that companies with toxic products have used for decades: sowing doubt about toxicology science, stalling regulation and wielding influence with political officials through campaign donations.
“The playbook repeats itself over and over,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior toxics adviser at the Sierra Club.
The US has long allowed companies to use thousands of chemicals with little or no data on whether they are safe. A 2016 update to US chemical laws is meant to require more testing, but critics say Trump’s EPA is using the new process to undermine ongoing reviews. The EPA says the changes to how it assesses chemicals will let the agency “expeditiously” regulate dangerous ones.
Lunder said the public only learns about the harmful chemicals that have unusual effects or that are discovered randomly by scientists. “A lot of the science is moving forward in a very opportunistic and chaotic way,” she said.
That has been to industry’s benefit.
But Corley said critics of the ACC are making “tired attempts to vilify the chemical industry to advance their advocacy goals”.
“ACC will continue to be a constructive participant in the discourse about these important issues,” Corley said, declining to comment on the number of lobbyists the group employs.
A long history of warnings about formaldehyde
The ACC has been lobbying the federal government to consider its own industry-funded science in reviewing two other chemicals – formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium – which have been known to be dangerous yet have been under debate for years. The EPA classified formaldehyde – used in wood products such as cabinets and furniture – as a probable human carcinogen in 1987. The EPA was aware that workers who inhaled hexavalent chromium had higher rates of respiratory cancers as early as 1984.
In January 2018, the ACC sent a letter criticizing how the EPA was handling a review of formaldehyde. That summer, news broke that the federal government had been stalling the release of findings that most Americans inhale enough formaldehyde to be at risk for leukemia.
In the letter, the ACC said its formaldehyde panel had left a meeting with EPA staff “very alarmed and troubled”, that the agency might conclude that “any level of formaldehyde exposure results in some level of potential cancer risk”.
The group said EPA was relying on studies that “have been shown in recent years to have significant scientific and methodological issues”, and that ACC had “proactively supported cutting-edge research with leading scientists … resulting in several dozen peer reviewed publications”.
Asked whether the ACC encouraged the government to delay the formaldehyde, Corley said the agency’s risk assessment program has “been plagued by serious issues for years”.
“It is no surprise that EPA leadership took time last year to reevaluate the IRIS program and how it was functioning,” Corley said.
The ACC maintains that “dozens of peer-reviewed studies” show the level of formaldehyde people inhale does not cause leukemia.
Now at the EPA: former industry representatives
The formaldehyde letter from ACC was signed by Kimberly Wise White, who was later assigned to the EPA’s science advisory board, which reviews what science the agency considers. That board isn’t currently considering formaldehyde, the EPA said, and members with a conflict of interest could be required to recuse themselves.
The formaldehyde review has been moved to a different program meant to prioritize certain chemicals, meaning it will be overseen by one of the EPA’s top chemicals officials, the former ACC executive Nancy Beck.
Other former industry representatives who now work on chemical rules at EPA include: Erik Baptist, a chemical safety appointee who worked for the American Petroleum Institute; Peter Wright, a Dow Chemical lawyer running the Superfund cleanup program; David Dunlap, a deputy in EPA’s research office who was a Koch Industries official; and Steven Cook, the head of EPA’s Superfund task force who was in-house counsel for plastics and chemical company LyondellBasell Industries.
Trump’s nominee to run the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, researcher Michael Dourson, withdrew from consideration after controversy over his close ties with industry.
The Erin Brokovich chemical still under review
The chemicals lobby has also been pushing EPA researchers to consider more industry-funded research on hexavalent chromium. Also known as Chromium-6, the drinking water contaminant was made infamous by Erin Brokovich.
In an April public science meeting, officials at the EPA said there are more than a thousand studies on the chemical that have come out since the agency’s last review, on oral ingestion, in 2010.
ToxStrategies, a consulting group that represents the American Chemistry Council and the Electric Power Research Institute, presented multiple industry-funded studies that discount some of the findings the EPA is considering and flagged problems in non-industry research.
One study that showed a significant increase in stomach cancers relied on a cohort of cement workers who may have been exposed to other chemicals, one consultant argued.
The ACC in a response to the Guardian argued “mode of action” studies show no toxicity in rodents exposed to hexavalent chromium at 10 times EPA’s limit for drinking water.
For both formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium, industry has pushed the EPA to use mode of action studies, which show the specific change at the cellular level that causes an illness.
A chemical producer might argue that although there is an association between exposure and illness, there still isn’t enough evidence to show how the illness happens and rule out other factors. Industry lobbyists will also say that the EPA isn’t considering the correct dose or means of exposure.
Sonya Lunder, of Sierra Club, said the tactics are “generally used to call for more data or to critique whether an effect is relevant on human”.
“Sometimes all this buys is a little bit more time for them to do one more study, she said.
Chemical studies in rodents are expensive and time-consuming. So the federal government is relying more on cellular-level studies conducted in petri dishes, often developed in partnership with industry, said Jennifer Sass, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. EPA argues its approach for evaluating chemicals “does not skew towards one type of study over another”.
But Sass disagreed and said the changes are “a complete disaster ”, she said. “What’s new now is that EPA is making decisions and calling chemicals safe,” Sass said, when “before there were just a whole bunch of chemicals with no decisions”.