Damage control follows official’s mysterious exit

By Ariel Wittenberg | 10/11/2018 01:20 PM EDT

The Trump EPA is clamoring to defend its commitment to children’s health after the ouster of a senior career official prompted a cascade of criticism.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaking at a recent children’s health event at the agency. EPA  senior scientist Michael Firestone is seen standing behind him in the center.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaking at a recent children’s health event at the agency. EPA senior scientist Michael Firestone is seen standing behind him in the center. Kevin Bogardus/E&E News

The Trump EPA is clamoring to defend its commitment to children’s health after the ouster of a senior career official prompted a cascade of criticism.

The agency about two weeks ago mysteriously placed the head of its children’s health office on administrative leave, sparking outcry from environmentalists, public health advocates and agency employees. Since then, EPA officials have been trying to shift the narrative, insisting in press conferences, news releases and interviews that the program isn’t in jeopardy. Still, critics remain suspicious after the administration has sought major cuts to the already tiny Clinton-era office.

"My discussions in the last couple of weeks is that children’s health is incredibly important, it remains a very important issue for EPA, and that’s unlikely to change," Michael Firestone, the acting director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, told E&E News this week in an interview at agency headquarters. Firestone, a career scientist who joined the agency more than 30 years ago, became the head of the office after Ruth Etzel was put on administrative leave.


Agency officials have declined to give details about Etzel’s abrupt departure, saying they don’t comment on personnel matters. But the move prompted questions about whether EPA was trying to eliminate the office altogether. EPA has since said that Etzel was placed on leave to allow the agency to review "allegations about the Director’s leadership of the office."

It remains unclear when, or if, Etzel will return to the post. She did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

EPA has pushed back against the idea that it is dismantling the office, with acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler saying "nothing could be further from the truth" at an event celebrating children’s health last week, where he appeared next to a school bus (Greenwire, Oct 1).

Henry Darwin, who is acting as EPA’s deputy administrator, stressed his personal commitment to the issue today.

"Growing up with a father who is a pediatrician, there is no denying the fact that I developed an appreciation for children’s health issues, and I got to see a lot of those issues firsthand," he said during a meeting of EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. Darwin said he "probably would have become a pediatrician myself," had he not fainted while helping his father hold down a child who was getting stitches.

Also last week, EPA spokesman John Konkus’ office pre-emptively contacted E&E News, offering to help with a story about the children’s health office.

Konkus said he had heard that E&E was working on the story after E&E interviewed members of the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee and others close to the EPA office. He wrote in an email that the agency wanted to "work with you to ensure E&E has a full and accurate understanding of the office and the important role it plays in protecting human health and the environment."

Konkus agreed to allow an in-person interview with Firestone on the condition that E&E did not ask about Etzel or her status.

The press office also provided an email that EPA Chief of Operations Henry Darwin sent to members of the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee outlining the administration’s commitment to the children’s health office.

"Despite of what you may have heard in the media or from people who are unaware of what is actually going on, EPA remains fully committed to protect children’s health and will soon announce several initiatives," he wrote. "Dr. Etzel was not placed on leave to diminish EPA’s Children’s Health Program. Children’s Health is an extremely important program for the agency and therefore EPA is seeking a strong leader to move the program forward."

He continued to say that EPA "recognizes one of the most important things we can do to protect our children’s future is to make sure they grow up in healthy environments. So, I want to reaffirm one of our top priorities at EPA continues to be the protection of children where they live, learn, and play."

Protecting ‘our future’

The children’s health office was created in 1997 following an executive order from President Clinton directing agencies to study and find ways to minimize the disproportionate risks toxins can pose to kids.

Just a few years earlier, the National Academy of Sciences had published a study on how children could be more vulnerable to pesticides than adults and recommending a number of regulatory changes. The study is largely credited with making policymakers aware of the differences between how toxins affect kids and adults.

While children had previously been thought of as "little adults," new research had shown that developing bodies have different abilities to process chemicals at different life stages. What’s more, children’s unique behaviors — like breastfeeding and crawling — make them more likely to come into contact with certain contaminants than adults.

The creation of the new EPA division dedicated resources and attention to those discrepancies, ensuring agency rulemakings and literature reflected them.

For the past 20 years, program staff have participated in working groups for various rulemakings and helped develop agencywide policies on how to factor children’s health into regulatory decisions. The children’s health office at EPA, along with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, also funds and supports a system of Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units across the country, which advise pediatricians treating patients who have been exposed to toxins.

"They are the ones translating the science … into meaningful policy and dialogue. What they do is critical," said Laura Anderko, director of Georgetown University’s Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, which receives funding from the EPA children’s health office.

Firestone arrived at EPA in the mid-1980s, working on risk assessments for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

What he saw back then makes the case for a strong children’s health office today, he said.

While the agency had been weighing children’s exposure to contaminants for some rulemakings, different program offices looked at the issue "in different ways," looking at exposure levels in children of different ages for different regulations, making them "totally incompatible."

One of the first things Firestone worked on when he joined the children’s health office in 2000 was guidance for considering kids’ exposure when writing regulations.

"If we didn’t do that, who would do that for the agency?" he said. "Who would make sure we are consistent? And make sure not just that we care about kids, but that we try to do it in a more consistent, more scientific fashion?"

The office has also made major changes to how EPA thinks about childhood itself, which in turn influences how the agency weighs children’s vulnerability to toxins. EPA used to consider children as one "susceptible population," without any distinctions for how developmental, behavioral and weight changes at different ages could influence kids’ exposure to contaminants. Now, EPA thinks of childhood as a series of "life stages" — including infancy and adolescence — associated with different behaviors, biology and exposure pathways.

"Children, to me, they are not some little group of people playing over in the kindergarten area — we are all children at some point," Firestone said, noting that exposure to some kinds of chemicals in childhood — like lead — can lead to lifelong problems. "I look at children’s health as a critical aspect of human health. If we don’t protect children, we’re not protecting not only our future, but ourselves."

Trump sought big budget cuts

Public health advocates are still worried about the future of the EPA office and say they don’t buy the administration’s explanation that Etzel was put on leave due to questions about her leadership.

"Ruth Etzel has played a clear role, knows a lot about lead and other problems," said David Jacobs, chief scientist for the National Center for Healthy Housing, who previously ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s lead healthy homes program between 1995 and 2005. "This administrative leave is just another chapter in the administration’s effort to move people who are skilled scientists to the sidelines so they can’t act."

Jacobs and others see Etzel’s status as just the latest indication that the Trump EPA is not supportive of the office.

The Trump administration has twice asked Congress to slash the program’s budget from $5.4 million to $1.4 million — a cut that would decrease its staff from 15 to five employees. Its staff already represents a small fraction of EPA’s roughly 15,000 employees.

Public health advocates became more concerned about the program’s future in September when the Trump administration published an organizational chart for EPA that did not include the children’s health office. A more recent chart shared with EPA employees on Oct. 3 did include the division, but by that time, Etzel had been placed on leave.

Anderko of Georgetown University called the proposed budget cuts "like asking one cop to police all of New York City," and said the cuts, coupled with Etzel’s leave and the organizational chart, "together seem like the perfect storm."

EPA says the organizational chart issue is a misunderstanding. Spokeswoman Nancy Grantham wrote in an email that the initial organizational chart did not include the office because it was a "high level view of the proposed organization," while the second version from October was a "more detailed chart that included incorporating multimedia programs such as Environmental Education, and Children’s Health and the geographical programs into the proposed organization."

Grantham also defended the president’s budget request, saying it "focuses agency efforts on activities required by statute" and "supports work in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection which would continue to coordinate and advance the protection of children’s environmental health throughout the agency as a critical part of EPA’s mission."

The American Academy of Pediatrics and more than 40 other children’s health groups have asked Wheeler for a sit-down meeting, telling him in a letter that placing Etzel on leave "has sent a signal that children’s health is not a priority at EPA."

The groups "ask that EPA immediately clarify what action it has taken with regards to Dr. Etzel and with regards to OCHP, and make no further attempts to dismantle, re-organize, diminish or otherwise reduce the abilities and authorities of OCHP."

Maureen Swanson, the co-leader of Project TENDR, a children’s health advocacy group whose acronym stands for Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks, agreed.

"OCHP is supposed to be the voice for children throughout the EPA, and if that voice is being sidelined and silenced, which seems like a possibility, that threatens children’s health across the board, whether it is water pollution, air pollution or toxic chemicals," she said.

Swanson and Anderko also note that the Trump administration has pursued regulatory rollbacks that could put kids at risk.

Those include EPA’s reconsideration of regulations requiring that workers handling pesticides be over the age of 18. While the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the certification and training of pesticide applicators and pesticide worker protection standards have been delayed by litigation, advocates say they are key examples of how EPA has de-emphasized children’s health.

Firestone actually worked on both the original minimum age requirements and the reconsideration of those rules.

That means he has provided "the same kind of data" on brain development and impacts from specific pesticides to the pesticide office for both rulemakings, while also researching whether "there is any new data that could make us want to change our minds or come up with a different conclusion," he said.

Asked whether he felt uncomfortable working on an effort to repeal standards many say are protective of children’s health, Firestone noted that his office is not itself a regulatory program, instead advising others who write the rules.

"One of the nice things about my job is I’m able to tell people what I think, what I know as a scientist," he said. "Things that go into risk management decisions — whether it is how to manage a risk or rule development — are things that are not under my purview, but I can provide input."

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.