GAO affirms the Trump EPA’s political manipulation of the IRIS formaldehyde assessment

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Lead Senior Scientist.

I blogged last month about the Trump EPA’s corrupt actions to bury the long-awaited assessment of the carcinogen formaldehyde conducted by the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program.  That post cited an article in the Wall Street Journal that noted a forthcoming report by Congress’ Government Accountability Office (GAO) that was expected to expose the suspect process used by conflicted political appointees at EPA to prevent public release and completion of that scientific assessment over the past 15 months.  We also noted disturbing indications that EPA intends to redo the assessment of formaldehyde under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), under the control of political appointees who came to EPA directly from the chemical industry’s main trade association and while there led its efforts to undermine IRIS. [pullquote]GAO confirms in spades the concerted efforts by the agency’s political leadership to fabricate a rationale for abandoning the formaldehyde assessment, which has been ready for public and peer review since the fall of 2017.[/pullquote]

GAO’s report is out, and yesterday it featured prominently at a Senate hearing at which top GAO officials testified.  That testimony confirms in spades the recounting in our earlier blog post of the concerted efforts by the agency’s political leadership to fabricate a rationale for abandoning the formaldehyde assessment, which has been ready for public and peer review since the fall of 2017.

In the wake of the GAO report, Senator Carper and other members of Congress from both houses have sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler calling on him to complete the formaldehyde assessment and release documents pertaining to potential ethical and scientific integrity policy violations by EPA political appointees.

I won’t further rehash our earlier post, but will simply post a key excerpt from the hearing, an exchange between Senator Tom Carper (DE) and Mark Gaffigan, Managing Director for Natural Resources and Environment at GAO.  I’ll highlight some key passages in which GAO describes what its investigation found.


CARPER:  The first question I have deals with chemical safety at EPA, and I just want to say thanks for being responsive on this front. The EPA’s chemical safety efforts have been on GAO’s High Risk List, as you know, for years. And on Monday, the GAO released a long report, one that I requested on chemical safety.

That report describes some disturbing developments about EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, which has an acronym, IRIS like the iris in our eye. It’s called IRIS, which studies the health hazards posed by chemicals.

So here’s my — here’s my question. GAO’s report said that until recently EPA’s IRIS program had been implementing many of the recommendations made by both GAO and the National Academy of Sciences, but the report also said that that progress was almost a year ago when EPA’s political officials told the EPA’s career staff to stop working on some of its reports, including the formaldehyde health assessment. Is that correct?

DODARO: This is Mr. Gaffigan, who’s led the effort on that report.

CARPER: OK, thank you.

GAFFIGAN: Thank you, Senator Carper. What had happened is EPA has an IRIS assessment plan which they list all the chemicals they’re working on at the current time, and as of May of 2018 they had a list of about 20 — 22 chemicals that they were working on, including formaldehyde.


GAFFIGAN: They had checked in with the program offices because they — they do these studies on behalf of the program offices to meet their needs in assessing safety in various areas — land, in air or water, whatever it may be. And that May 2018 list was good to go, but they were told in June to hold off, that the leadership wanted to take a look at that list. They sent a survey out to the program offices to reconfirm their interest in those 20 — 22 chemicals.

They eventually — the survey had 20 chemicals listed on it. There were two that were already about to go to peer review, so they didn’t include those. They were at the later stages. And then they got the answer back from the program offices. Yes, indeed, we would like to look at these same 20. They reconfirmed that.


GAFFIGAN: But then later in October before they released the survey results, there was a further inquiry as to prioritization asking, again, the program offices to prioritize, yet they didn’t provide any criteria for deciding how to prioritize.

The next thing that we’re aware that happened is in December 2018 they released a new list. There were only 11 chemicals on there.

CARPER: So almost cut in half.

GAFFIGAN: Almost cut in half, and there’s no explanation as to why they decided to drop some chemicals. There are at least four chemicals in the sort of last stages ready to go to peer review, including formaldehyde, that vanished. And so, that raises a lot of uncertainty and questions about what happened and what was the rationale for doing that.

CARPER: All right, thank you. That’s a very good explanation. Just for my colleagues, let me just note for my colleagues that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. It’s been reported that EPA’s career scientists have concluded that it causes leukemia. There have actually been chemical industry and congressional efforts to stall the publication of this report now for more than a decade.

Now we’d ask, Mr. Dodaro, for you and Mark [Gaffigan], GAO’s report also found that initially EPA’s water and superfund offices both said that they considered the completion of the formaldehyde report to be a priority — a priority.

But after that, EPA’s political officials asked for a new list of priorities, as Mark has mentioned, and magically vanishing, the formaldehyde report was not listed as a priority on this new list. That means EPA no longer plans to finish the formaldehyde report even though it has been ready for peer review since 2017 and they spent I’m told about $10 million on the research. Do I have all that right?

GAFFIGAN: And I would just add they’ve been working on it actually since 1997.

CARPER: Wow, 21 years or 22 — 22 years. Another question related to this, but I would ask again, Gene, if you and Mark, did GAO learn why EPA’s political officials asked for a new list of priorities that has resulted in a decision not to publish the formaldehyde health assessment?

GAFFIGAN: We never — we never gathered. This came in December towards the end of our report. We were never able to assess what the rationale was. There was some talk about trying to limit the budget, but as we had the conversation before, Congress fully funded the budget for IRIS which ended up about $20 million — $20 million, and it may have — with that list of 20 chemicals, they felt they had the resources to do all 20 with their budget.

So that explanation doesn’t seem to make sense unless, in fact, they were trying to not spend as much money in IRIS.

CARPER: Well for — thank you both for the response. Mark, especially thank you. For an agency that is so concerned about so called secret science, that it is writing a rule against the topic, EPA appears to be going to great lengths to keep its own science secret. Let me just note that for the record.

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