Congressional Democrats yesterday expressed outrage that the Department of Health and Human Services still hasn’t published a toxicology study that a White House official earlier this year described as a "potential public relations nightmare."
The lawmakers are demanding that the study be released immediately and that an oversight hearing be held.
The study of four types of stain- and water-resistant chemicals is being conducted by HHS’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR.
An unnamed member of the White House’s intergovernmental affairs team warned that the draft toxicology profile of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, "has some very, very low ‘Minimal Risk Level’ (MRL) numbers," the lowest of which is 12 parts per trillion in drinking water — over 80 percent below the current maximum safe level EPA has advised for two types of PFAS.
"The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge," the official predicted in a note that was sent to EPA on Jan. 30 by Jim Herz, the associate director for natural resources, energy and science at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. "The impact to EPA and [the Department of Defense] is going to be extremely painful."
Nearly five months later, ATSDR still has not released that toxicology profile, which the unnamed official said "they are getting ready to publish" in the Federal Register.
That revelation, found by Politico in emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill and in the public health advocacy community.
"Outrageous," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in a tweet. "The White House and @EPAScottPruitt are failing to protect public health. Victims of PFOA and PFOS contamination, and their families, deserve answers. This report should be released immediately."
New Hampshire Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan also called on the Trump administration to publish the draft assessment.
Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, who hails from the Granite State as well, urged the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold a hearing on the potentially delayed report.
Ken Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a news release that "only [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration would consider reducing drinking water contamination for the American people to be a ‘nightmare.’"
The agency currently has no drinking water standards for PFAS, which have been used since the 1940s to make products like Teflon and which is in what the Pentagon has used as firefighting foam for decades.
But in May 2016, the agency issued health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), two types of PFAS that U.S. manufacturers had voluntarily phased out the prior year.
"Studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects," EPA said in a Federal Register notice announcing the advisories.
The adverse effects include testicular and kidney cancer; liver tissue damage; weakened immune systems and increased cholesterol; and developmental problems like low birth weight, accelerated puberty and skeletal variations, the notice said.
The ATSDR toxicology profile, according to the unnamed White House official, finds such effects even at levels below the 70-parts-per-trillion level EPA has currently deemed safe for drinking water. That’s the equivalent of 70 droplets of water in a full Olympic-sized swimming pool.
PFAS has long been politically toxic for the Trump administration.
Gillibrand and North Carolina Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis opposed Michael Dourson, President Trump’s ill-fated pick to lead the EPA chemicals program, because of his past work downplaying the risk of PFAS for industry clients. The lawmakers represent communities that have been heavily impacted by PFAS pollution from plastic makers and military bases.
Shortly after Dourson withdrew from Senate consideration, EPA announced a two-day national meeting on PFAS in Washington, D.C. It is scheduled to begin a week from today (Greenwire, March 20).
ATSDR and EPA both declined to comment on Hill reaction to news of the politically sensitive report.
Instead, ATSDR said it "is preparing to release the draft PFAS Toxicological Profile." Right now, however, the agency is "working with the EPA, DoD and other federal partners to provide consistent and proper interpretation of the role of MRLs, and how they should be used and interpreted," ATSDR’s press office said in a statement.
EPA, meanwhile, confirmed that it was working closely with ATSDR on the PFAS report.
"The Agency has provided input, at ATSDR’s request, at multiple stages throughout the process of developing minimal risk levels for PFAS," a spokeswoman said in an email.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents PFAS manufacturers, also avoided commenting on the congressional blowback, which is for now contained to Democratic lawmakers.
"We look forward to reviewing the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s draft toxicological profile and providing comments to the agency when it is officially released," ACC spokesman Jonathan Corley said in a statement. "Any assessment should use the best available science and weight of the evidence approach."