Dangers of TCE minimized under industry pressure.
A SPECIAL REPORT FROM THE CENTER
FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING/REVEAL
Story Elizabeth Shogren
John DeSesso was on a mission when he entered the halls of the Environmental Protection Agency in late September. Inside the ornate limestone building not far from the White House, he met with a dozen EPA scientists and officials. He had an extraordinary opportunity: to persuade the agency to reject the science linking one of the nation’s most widely used chemical toxins, a solvent known as trichloroethylene, or TCE, to fetal heart defects. Chemical companies and their allies inside the government had been working toward this goal for more than two decades.
As cancer clusters, immune disorders, and fetal abnormalities mounted in communities contaminated by TCE, DeSesso was paid to cast doubt on the research establishing TCE’s toxic effects on the human body.
President Trump’s de-regulatory fervor bolsters the chemical industry and the Defense Department’s effort to debunk the science linking TCE to fetal heart defects.
After a career of critiquing the science from the sidelines, DeSesso now had, for the first time, a study of his own, one he claimed could debunk decades of research unpacking TCE’s role in damaging fetal hearts. The study was funded by two trade associations that had supported his work over many years: the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, which represents the makers of TCE, and the American Chemistry Council.
The stakes were high—federal regulations hung in the balance—but DeSesso and his colleagues had every reason to believe their presentation would meet with a warm reception. He was here as an invited guest. One of his hosts, David Fischer, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of chemical safety, was himself a former executive of the American Chemistry Council. The trade group spends handsomely to influence federal regulation of chemicals, investing $7.6 million in lobbying the federal government in 2019 alone.
For years, DeSesso and his chemical industry sponsors had been preoccupied with trying to undercut the findings of a 2003 University of Arizona study. That study, led by veterinary scientist Paula Johnson, had been a landmark in establishing that TCE exposure at trace levels was highly toxic to developing embryos. The Johnson study had been pivotal in past EPA evaluations of TCE’s risks.
After her study came out, Johnson came under such ferocious attack by the chemical industry that she left research altogether. She said she’d never seen anyone get heckled at a scientific conference like she was or be subjected to the kind of “publication battle” that DeSesso and others launched against her in print.
Now DeSesso was here, inside the EPA, hoping to bury her study for good.
From the moment DeSesso’s study first appeared in the journal Birth Defects Research last year, it was the subject of intense controversy, as much over his conflicts of interest as his categorical conclusion that ingesting TCE at low levels “does not cause cardiac defects in rat offspring.” TCE experts inside academia were furious; four penned an excoriating letter to the editor pointing out that DeSesso had ignored a vast body of evidence showing TCE toxicity at low exposures. They attached a list of 15 studies, conducted from 2000 to 2018, supporting their conclusion.
In his presentation to the EPA that day, DeSesso bypassed that body of evidence again and made the same contentious claim: His findings demonstrated conclusively that TCE does not cause heart defects in rats.
The EPA scientists in attendance had heard DeSesso’s criticisms before. They knew the evidence linking TCE to heart deformities was strong. The EPA had formally analyzed the chemical’s risks in 2011 and again in 2016, and each time had found them to be so severe that, in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, the EPA had proposed bans of several common uses of the chemical altogether.
A year later, the EPA, then headed by Trump appointee Scott Pruitt, halted the regulatory process, quietly dropping the proposed rule from its schedule of pending regulatory actions. The regulatory process would start over from scratch. No new restrictions would be announced until the EPA completed a fresh scientific evaluation.
That official evaluation was released for public comment in February, and it appears to show the influence of DeSesso and his chemical company sponsors. Dismissing the findings of the Johnson study and decades of scientific research, the published evaluation rejects fetal heart malformations as a benchmark for unsafe exposure levels to TCE.
“This decision is grave,” said Jennifer McPartland, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “It not only underestimates the lifelong risks of the chemical, especially to the developing fetus, it also presents yet another example of this administration bowing to polluters’ interests over public health.”
But Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has learned that those findings were altered radically at the direction of the Trump White House.
Reveal has obtained a copy of a roughly 700-page draft evaluation that was signed off on by EPA scientists before it was sent out for review in December to the White House and several federal agencies. In that internal report, EPA scientists detailed methodological limitations in DeSesso’s study—it “was likely to miss” an important category of cardiac malformations—and found Johnson’s study to be so definitive that they used it as a benchmark for their calculations of unsafe exposure to TCE.
With this benchmark, the internal report had come to an entirely different conclusion: Even trace exposure to TCE is unsafe because it can deform fetal hearts.
The White House had directed the EPA to override the findings of its own scientists.
TCE has been used widely for decades to remove grease from electronics, medical devices, metal parts and aircraft, and by ordinary dry cleaners. It was then often dumped and leaked, contaminating soil and groundwater in residential neighborhoods, military bases, and industrial parks across the country.
It’s hard to overstate how widespread TCE is. It’s present in nearly 800 toxic Superfund sites in every state. The military has found it in 1,400 of its operational facilities. Hundreds of thousands of people working at dry cleaners and small manufacturing shops are exposed. It’s in tap water, too, in public water systems in 41 states that serve 19 million people, according to an analysis of EPA data by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. People also can be exposed to TCE from countless smaller sources of pollution, including neighborhood dry cleaners.
TCE was first identified as a potential carcinogen decades ago, and under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA set maximum levels for drinking water contamination in 1985. But those levels have never been updated, and no other form of exposure has ever been regulated formally.
Johnson’s study had its roots in the 1970s in a Tucson, Arizona, cardiology clinic. There, Johnson’s co-author, Dr. Stanley Goldberg, had noticed that many children who came into his clinic with heart defects lived in the same cluster of neighborhoods. The public tap water that served that area was later found to be contaminated with TCE. After wells were closed in the 1980s, he noticed, the cluster of heart defects disappeared. Since then, other studies of neighborhoods with TCE contamination have found increases in heart defects, including a 2012 study in upstate New York after a big spill at an Endicott IBM semiconductor plant.
The risk of TCE is so ubiquitous that it even affected a former senior EPA scientist, Tom Burke, the agency’s chief scientist during the Obama administration. When Burke’s mother was pregnant with him and during his early childhood in the 1950s, his family could look out of the kitchen windows in their Jersey City, New Jersey, home into the open windows of Standard Laundry, a local dry cleaner. He remembers watching the steam rise from clothes as women ironed them in industrial presses.
“There was always a sweet smell,” Burke recalled, a smell he now knows was TCE. As an adolescent, Burke learned that he likely would die before the age of 30 if he didn’t have open heart surgery to fix a congenital hole in his heart. He went on to become a pivotal player in advising on the EPA’s proposed ban in December 2016. “So I literally have had a lifetime relationship with TCE,” Burke said. Despite the recognized risks, TCE still has a $350-million-a-year global market, a quarter of which is used in the United States, according to the EPA.
It’s still used by tens of thousands of dry cleaners to remove spots from clothes and by manufacturers and small auto shops to strip grease off metal and plastic parts. Companies including steel mills, paper plants, and refineries reported to the EPA that they released more than 2 million pounds of TCE into the air and land around the country in 2015 alone.
The U.S. market used to be dominated by household names, such as Dow Chemical Co., which sold its TCE business in recent years. Now, most TCE is imported; the large domestic manufacturers that remain include Olin Corp. and Westlake Chemical Corp. TCE’s ubiquity also translates into enormous liabilities. Even without new regulations, cleanup costs for manufacturers and users, including the U.S. government, could run into the billions of dollars. Workers and residents exposed to the chemical already have won multi-million dollar settlements, including a cluster of men from the same part of Tucson who were all diagnosed with a rare testicular cancer.
Several high-profile lawsuits are pending, including two by former employees of Brookhaven National Laboratory, a federal lab in New York, who suffered from TCE-related kidney damage. Lawyers in Minnesota are gathering clients to sue Water Gremlin after the fishing sinker manufacturer was fined $7 million for violating air pollution limits for TCE. Residents’ complaints include neurological diseases and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another cancer linked to TCE exposure.
The full range of serious health effects associated with TCE also includes kidney cancer, leukemia, and immune diseases such as lupus. Decades of scientific research show that it takes higher doses of TCE or sustained exposure to cause most of these diseases. But research into fetal heart deformities has shown damage with much smaller exposures. So any regulations based on fetal heart science would be far more stringent—triggering more liability and higher cleanup costs. That’s why chemical companies and their army of paid scientists such as DeSesso have focused their attacks for so long on the science linking TCE to heart defects.
The sheer scale of the liability risk has put TCE and the science linking it to fetal heart damage at the center of the chemical industry’s efforts to block regulation of its most toxic products since the early 2000s. The internal document Reveal obtained, issued by the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and dated Dec. 20, 2019, is called “Risk Evaluation for Trichloroethylene.” Each page is stamped “Inter-agency draft—do not cite or quote.” This sort of document is a routine part of the EPA’s mission to protect the environment and human health and to regulate human exposure to toxic chemicals. Before proposing any new chemical regulations, the agency deploys a team of staff scientists to conduct a rigorous evaluation of the scientific literature to establish unsafe exposure levels.
The process, designed to be impartial, has been subjected to intense political interference by the Trump administration, according to the agency’s own Science Advisory Board. But the internal draft of this TCE evaluation, when compared with the published one, provides evidence of extensive, detailed and thorough-going edits that have not been documented in other cases. The internal draft, government scientists say, involved three years of work, as EPA scientists combed through decades of scientific research on TCE’s toxicity and how people get exposed. But then the draft went to the White House and other federal agencies for review.
According to two government scientists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, EPA scientists were directed to substantially rewrite their evaluation by discarding the science on TCE’s role in fetal heart defects. The instructions, they said, came from the Executive Office of the President. That’s where Nancy Beck, chief of the EPA’s chemicals office and a longtime senior lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, was detailed in June. The internal draft establishes heart defects as the baseline for determining unsafe TCE exposure levels. “EPA identifies developmental cardiac malformations as the risk driver endpoint,” it reads. “This is the effect that is most sensitive, and it is expected that addressing risks for this effect would address other identified risks.”
Notably, the amount of TCE found to trigger immuno-suppression in the study used in the published draft is nearly 500 times higher than the exposure found to trigger heart defects in the Johnson study. The regulatory implications of that change could be enormous. As rule making proceeds on TCE in the months to come, the sidelining of the heart defects research could affect any EPA proposals to ban or limit TCE. It also potentially could erode any existing EPA recommendations based on the heart defect science, such as EPA guidance on TCE pollution cleanup at military bases and other Superfund sites. According to the two senior government scientists, the EPA swapped out heart deformities for a less sensitive benchmark on direct orders from the White House. Often, these directives arrived by email, as unsigned attachments from the Executive Office of the President. One government scientist said the attachments contained “redline” markups of changes the White House wanted made.
Once that change was made in the toxicity benchmark, it had a cascading effect. The published report recalculates the risks posed for each of 54 different ways TCE is used—from manufacturing refrigerants in big industrial plants to removing spots from living room carpets and cleaning guns. Each of these exposures has a dedicated section of the draft, and in each section, the toxicity benchmark was changed, and unsafe levels were recalculated and raised, after White House interference. Raising unsafe levels also means that while the internal draft found that exposure to pepper spray presents an unreasonable risk, the published draft did not.
The risk of the glue used in hair extensions and lace wigs, listed as an exposure in the internal draft, was dropped entirely in the published version, determined to fall outside the scope of the EPA’s jurisdiction “after consultation with the FDA.” “This is absolutely evidence that science is taking a back seat,” said Richard Denison, a biochemist who focuses on toxic chemical regulation for the Environmental Defense Fund. Yet TCE is so toxic that even after swapping out the studies, the EPA draft still finds that TCE poses unreasonable risks in 53 uses. In many instances, the published evaluation finds, even wearing gloves and respirators wouldn’t be enough to protect people from harm. Government scientists independently said they were outraged that the White House was dictating the EPA’s scientific conclusions. “Who knows the science better—the EPA scientists or the White House?” asked one of them, a veteran EPA scientist, who added that over a lengthy career, they had never seen such “heavy-handed” interference by the White House in chemical safety.
Usually, the EPA scientist said, White House reviews are a process of negotiation. “This was just, ‘You guys aren’t getting it right; we’ll tell you how it’s supposed to read,’ ” the scientist said. “That’s unheard of.” The scientist said the White House had barred the EPA from releasing the draft for peer review and public comment until it deleted fetal heart risk as the exposure benchmark. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
This article has been adapted from a special report produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. For the full report, go to cironline.org