What has EPA been hiding about formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. It touches Americans every day in wrinkle-resistant clothing, detergents, soaps, furniture and pet products. Formaldehyde has even been found at low levels in the air we breathe. While we live with many different chemicals in our food, water, air and day-to-day products, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that these exposures aren’t putting the public’s health in jeopardy. For that reason, the Environmental Protection Agency is tasked with conducting studies to assess the risk of chemicals.
Within EPA’s Office of Research and Development is the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS. The experts at IRIS do not write regulations. Rather, they evaluate the dose-response relationship that determines the health effects of individual chemicals that Americans encounter in their daily environment. They tell us how various exposure levels to chemicals will affect healthy adults, pregnant women, infants, the elderly or the immuno-compromised. IRIS assessments provide the scientific bedrock for how to address health risks related to chemical exposures.
There is a distressing history in this country of unsuspecting Americans being exposed to high rates of toxic chemicals that have led to debilitating diseases, cancer and even death. That’s why recent actions by the EPA to suppress its IRIS program are so troubling to me.
In March, the independent, nonpartisan Government Accountability Office issued a report on IRIS that shows inappropriate political interference. Starting in mid-2018, President Trump’s appointees took a series of actions to cut the IRIS workflow of chemical assessments nearly in half. Career civil servants working in IRIS–including some of the longest-serving non-political employees in the agency–were cut out of the conversation during this process. The 10 chemical assessments on the chopping block were all at various stages nearing completion, and millions of taxpayer dollars had already been spent in conducting these evaluations.
The elimination of formaldehyde from the IRIS docket is particularly troubling, because we know that EPA’s work here is essentially already done. The former EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, told the Senate that the formaldehyde assessment was ready for “imminent” release in January 2018. This draft assessment is the culmination of countless hours of work from EPA scientists over more than a decade.
The American people deserve to see this work, particularly since IRIS has not released a detailed review of the chemical since 1990. We have long known that formaldehyde exposure aggravates the respiratory system, causes noses bleeds and irritates skin, but the body of research that links formaldehyde to certain types of cancer has increased significantly in the intervening years. Since 1990, leading health authorities have significantly changed their position on formaldehyde. In 2009 the National Cancer Institute found a 78 percent increase in leukemia among workers who had been regularly exposed to formaldehyde. And news reports indicate that the unreleased draft IRIS assessment draws a definitive link between formaldehyde and increased risk of leukemia.
EPA has not just failed to offer a credible argument for why it has abandoned the assessments for formaldehyde and nine other chemicals – it is apparently working to obscure its machinations from the public eye. EPA’s December 2018 “announcement” that it would suspend 10 of IRIS’s ongoing chemical assessments, a drastic decision by any measure, wasn’t much of an announcement at all. Instead, EPA quietly issued a new Program Outlook that did not even acknowledge the absence of formaldehyde or the other chemical reviews it had abandoned.
In fact, EPA seems to be trying to obstruct congressional efforts to understand what’s going on at IRIS. At a hearing my committee held in March of 2019 to discuss IRIS, the Agency sent a career official to testify who was wholly unequipped to answer basic questions on the decision-making around formaldehyde. EPA also ignored a document request we sent in early March for a full five months. When the Agency finally began to share documents with Congress, they were overwhelmingly irrelevant and redacted to the point of uselessness. Since that time, our requests to EPA for more information have been met with more stonewalling.
As a former public health professional and as a steward of taxpayer money, I have seen the policy decisions on IRIS coming from EPA over the past year as questionable at best. Moreover, the Agency’s unwillingness to explain its decisions since then, and to answer the questions we have asked them in good faith, is deeply disturbing. It seems that EPA simply does not want the public to know what the science has to say – even if that keeps people from understanding the health risks they might be encountering at home or at work. It is unfortunate that the Agency’s refusals to answer for its actions have led the House Science, Space & Technology Committee to issue subpoenas to the Agency.
I began my career as a nurse over 50 years ago at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital. My experiences in public health taught me an important lesson: patients see the best health outcomes when we have access to the most complete set of facts. Having the best scientific information about the factors that might be affecting a patient’s condition is the key to diagnosing, treating and making that patient well.
As the chairwoman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, it is my responsibility to help ensure that federal scientists can perform their high-quality research with integrity. When environmental research is sidelined to protect special interests, we must respond. EPA must be held accountable for its decisions to hobble IRIS and suppress the formaldehyde study. American citizens deserve to know the truth.
Eddie Bernice Johnson is serving her 14th term in Congress representing Dallas, Texas, and serves as the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. She studied nursing at Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University and served as the chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital.
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