by Mia DiFelice
In the 1960s, the United States was drowning in pollution. Air pollution killed hundreds of New Yorkers, towns stank with sludge and smog, an Ohio river burst into flames. In response to public fears and public pressure, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Since then, the EPA has committed to “protecting human health and the environment” with regulations, education and funding for state and local programs. It claims to rely on “best available scientific information” to promote clean air, land and water for everyone. Yet, the agency has failed to keep up with emerging threats — in part because of industry sway.
Big corporations have made it their business to co-opt agencies meant to guard us from danger. Now, rather than fulfill its mission, the EPA too often protects the interests of polluting corporations instead. Nothing makes that clearer than information coming straight from four whistleblowing scientists. In July of last year, scientists from EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety shared evidence alleging abuse and corruption that give toxic chemicals a pass onto the market.
The Office of Chemical Safety Does Not Stop all Unsafe Chemicals
Companies are constantly introducing new chemicals for manufacturing, construction, agribusiness and more. EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention studies these chemicals and keeps dangerous ones off the market. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
In 2021, whistleblowers revealed how management undermined scientific findings and pressured scientists to change their reports for numerous chemicals. Or, perhaps worse, supervisors changed the reports’ conclusions without scientists knowing until after the fact. These scientists detailed a culture of intimidation, corruption and retaliation, which allows thousands of toxic chemicals into our homes and workplaces. Chemicals that were given a pass have been linked to cancer, developmental disorders and neurological effects, among other health risks.
It looks like the executives hired to protect the public are more worried about protecting the profits of chemical companies. And these whistleblowers say they’re willing to cheat, bully and lie to their staff to do so.
Is the EPA Loyal to Chemical Companies Over Public Health and Safety?
Throughout these instances of pressure and abuse, whistleblowers report, management often prioritized the chemical companies submitting chemicals for assessment. They emphasized how upset companies would be if the work was too slow. They even dangled the threat of lawsuits over scientists’ heads, if the assessment came out unfavorably. Moreover, according to one toxicologist at the agency, “It is the unwritten rule that to get promotions, all pesticides need to pass.”
All this happens because EPA management routinely jumps into the chemicals industry after leaving the agency. In fact, since 1974, all seven former EPA pesticide directors who continued working after their time at the EPA did so at pesticide companies. Other EPA officials have gone on to work as consultants and board members at agrochemical companies.
This revolving door has devastating impacts for our health and our environment. For instance, from June 2016 to July 2021, 3,835 new chemical applications were submitted to the EPA. Not a single chemical was kept off-market. This included 40 PFAS compounds. Studies that companies submitted linked these chemicals to neurotoxicity, cancers, convulsions and more. Yet, all 40 PFAS chemicals have been allowed, largely unregulated, onto the market.
PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” do not break down naturally but will persist in the environment. By siding with the chemicals industry, senior officials put short-term career ambitions before the forever effects of toxic chemicals.
This Isn’t the EPA’s First Alleged Chemical Cover-up
The EPA was already in the spotlight in 2018 for its inaction on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup weedkiller. Bayer-Monsanto, owner of Roundup, has faced hundreds of thousands of lawsuits by people alleging a link between their cancer and Roundup. Contrary to warnings from the World Health Organization and numerous scientific studies, the EPA insists that glyphosate is not a human carcinogen.
Yet, in 2016, the agency had done an internal analysis on glyphosate linking the chemical to cancer. But it kept the study under wraps. Instead, drafts of the EPA’s human risk assessment for glyphosate (first published that same year) gave the chemical the lowest possible cancer rating: “Not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
In a common industry strategy, Monsanto ghostwrote research and paid academics to put their names on it. The EPA used this scientifically dubious research, as well as dozens of other industry-funded, unpublished studies, to reach its equally meritless conclusions on glyphosate.
Interestingly, Bayer-Monsanto has announced it will stop selling glyphosate-based products for home use, but not because the EPA stopped them. It seems entirely prompted instead by the tidal wave of lawsuits the corporation has faced. The EPA should have stepped in long before that point — and banned all uses of glyphosate.
The EPA’s Two-Pronged Problem Puts Us All At Risk
EPA managers putting their thumb on the scale of critical scientific assessments threatens our health, safety and environment. And it will only get worse as corporations strengthen their influence. The market for glyphosate is expected to grow by billions of dollars in the next few years, despite the controversy. And researchers have found PFAS everywhere from widely used pesticides to children’s clothing and everything in between.
Making matters worse, the EPA struggles with severe lack of resources, funding and staffing. Administrator Michael Regan told Congress that the agency has only 50% of what it needs to “review the safety of new chemicals quickly in the way that the law requires.” Monsanto-Bayer spent more cash defending glyphosate in court than the entire budget of the Office of Pesticide Programs. The EPA does not have the capacity to stand up to chemical companies or even do its job correctly. Besides vulnerability to corruption, this results in backlogs of work, rushed assessments and hurried acceptance of industry “science.”
Even with the EPA’s recent change of hands in the Biden Administration, the agency faces deep-rooted cultural problems that will be hard to shake off. In 2022, an internal survey showed that EPA scientists in the New Chemicals Division still suffer from burnout and fears of retaliation. Staff reported that a culture of fear, retribution and abuse at senior levels remains common.
EPA executives are wooed by corporate influence at the top, while scrambling to make do with scarce resources from below. The result? An agency that is failing to protect us from the toxic threats seeping into our everyday lives.
Food & Water Watch won’t stop fighting to hold EPA accountable to public health and the environment — not corporate profits. We can’t do it without you.
Help us continue the fight.