The scariest part about the 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia was that, in the beginning, no one really knew anything about the chemical that poisoned their drinking water. Ten thousand gallons of a licorice-scented chemical called MCHM had leaked from a storage container into the Elk River, a tap water source for 300,000 people in Charleston. Schools closed, hospitals evacuated patients, and the local economy of the state’s most populated city came grinding to a halt. For weeks, citizens were unsure whether they had been exposed to unsafe levels of the chemical, and what exactly MCHM would do to their bodies if they consumed it.
West Virginians did eventually get a clearer picture of MCHM. Tom Burke, who served as the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief science adviser under President Obama, thinks that’s partially because of an EPA program called the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which assesses the health risks of thousands of chemicals across the country. “When there is a mystery like West Virginia, it’s those world-class scientists in the IRIS program that do the exposure assessment and risk analysis that lead to future decision-making about the chemical,” he told me. Congress is well aware of its value. “From the dusts of the World Trade Center and the faucets of Flint; to the toxic waters of Katrina and Harvey; [IRIS scientists] are there, working selflessly to protect our nation’s environment and public health,” Burke said in September before a House Science Committee hearing on the program. “Our health depends on them.”
We may not be able to depend on them for much longer. On Monday, the Republican-controlled Senate released a spending bill that eliminates IRIS. The bill asserts that IRIS’s functions would be maintained, just transferred to the agency’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) program. But Burke and others say the TSCA program is not large or well-funded enough to handle all the different types of chemical risk assessments IRIS does. “EPA’s ability to conduct risk evaluations under the new TSCA would be severely curtailed by the loss of both expertise and capacity that reside in the IRIS program,” wrote Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
But this is good news for companies that produce and disseminate chemicals. IRIS scientists’ findings have huge financial implications for polluters. When chemicals get into the air, soil, or water, regulators often base their cleanup requirements on what IRIS scientists say is safe. And chemical industry–funded scientists have been recently accusing the program of misconduct, claiming IRIS scientists exaggerate the health risks of certain chemicals. (One asserted that formaldehyde is not carcinogenic when inhaled.) A recent report also found that the IRIS program was operating more efficiently and more transparently than ever. That will surely cease being the case if the program is transferred to TSCA.
The Senate’s spending bill is just the latest victory for the chemical industry, which since Donald Trump’s inauguration has had a lot to celebrate. Freed from the Obama administration’s clampdown on safety, companies that produce essential but oftentimes toxic substances are seeing their stocks rally. Pesticides and chemicals banned for their poisonous nature are being newly reviewed; safety regulations are being relaxed; and industry representatives are being chosen for top government positions.
Indeed, the industry is getting exactly what it paid for—but at what cost to public health?
The most telling two paragraphs about the Trump administration’s approach to chemical safety are contained within New York Times reporter Eric Lipton’s damning investigation into the topic. Given several examples of how recent EPA decisions on chemicals could pose risks to human health and the environment, a spokesperson lashed back:
“No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said in an email. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”
Before joining the EPA, Ms. Bowman was a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council.
In Trump’s federal government, industry players decide what’s best for protecting human health and the environment. The Times piece points to the example of former American Chemistry Council executive Nancy Beck, now a top deputy at EPA’s toxic chemical office. In her brief tenure, she has ordered risk re-evaluations of numerous chemicals previously found to be linked to health problems like cancer and birth defects. In addition, the person who oversees chemical safety at the EPA is Michael Dourson, the “voice of the chemical industry” who spent his career questioning the harmfulness of industry products. Trump also personally selected Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris to head his now-defunct American Manufacturing Council, which Trump was forced to disband after mass resignations.
These players’ presence “is already visible in virtually every decision being made” at EPA, Denison told ThinkProgress earlier this month. One of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first actions was to cancel an expected ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that EPA’s own scientists warned could cause brain damage in children. After Beck took charge of the EPA’s toxics office, her first major action was to weaken a key chemical safety law. A congressionally mandated chemical review, which was supposed to reevaluate risks of asbestos and several other highly toxic substances, has been limited by the Trump administration. And Pruitt also halted an Obama-era rule intended to prevent chemical manufacturers from emitting excess pollution.
The $800 billion chemical industry is finally getting what its been attempting to buy from Republicans for decades. “Since 1990, Republicans have received nearly three-quarters of the $141 million contributed by the industry,” according to OpenSecrets, which also notes that chemical industry was one of the only sectors to give more to John McCain than Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. “Since then, it has shown an even stronger preference for Republicans, who received 77 percent of its political donations during the 2012 cycle.”
It’s true that Hillary Clinton got a bit more money from chemical industry players during the 2016 election than Trump. But Trump received more money after the election from one chemical company than both candidates received from the entire industry during the election. Dow Chemical, which sells approximately 5 million pounds of chlorpyrifos per year, donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.