Energy & Environment

Trump official delayed releasing information on cancer-linked chemical in Illinois: watchdog

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A Trump administration political official delayed the publication of information about a chemical that has been linked to health issues – including cancer – in Illinois, an internal government watchdog said Thursday. 

The inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday released a report which said that officials delayed the public release of information about the risks of a chemical called ethylene oxide in Willowbrook, Ill. 

The report also said that senior political officials sought to restrict regional officials from conducting certain activities to monitor for ethylene oxide. 

On June 20, 2018, the leader of the EPA’s regional office was briefed on agency ethylene oxide monitoring around a facility owned by industrial sterilization company Sterigenics. The monitoring found concentrations of the chemical that would lead to increased cancer risk if people were exposed for a lifetime, the report said. 

The watchdog added that the regional administrator wanted to “immediately” release the results to the public “to avoid another public health emergency like the Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis.”

Two days later, regional staff were prepared to release the results, but the report said that the EPA’s then-assistant administrator for Air and Radiation “delayed” them from releasing the results. 

The report does not name the official, but Bill Wehrum was serving as the agency’s assistant administrator for Air and Radiation at the time. 

Staffers told the watchdog that the official halted the release because they wanted to release the data alongside a national air toxics assessment that had not yet been published. 

The report also found that a senior official told regional officials to take down a webpage that was posted about the facility. 

It said that in August 2018, regional officials posted background information on ethylene oxide and the Sterigenics facility, as well as its monitoring results and details on how the agency is responding.

About an hour later, the EPA’s then-deputy assistant administrator for Air and Radiation told regional officials to take the webpage down.

Staff told the inspector general’s office that all that was left on the website after the page was taken down were the monitoring results and the link to a health consultation from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 

“Without the background information on the Sterigenics facility, the public did not have any context regarding monitoring results or the ATSDR Letter Health Consultation,” the report said. 

In October 2018, regional officials posted a revised webpage that had input from the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation.

The watchdog said that as of January 15, 2021, the page “did not include all the details that were in the original webpage, including the statement that the EPA has determined ethylene oxide to be carcinogenic to humans.”

The report also said that senior political officials instructed regional officials not to carry out certain activities to monitor ethylene oxide. 

This included preventing them from getting information from facilities that emit ethylene oxide through Clean Air Act information request letters, telling them not to conduct new air monitoring for ethylene oxide and not seeking assistance from ATSDR. 

“The instructions from OAR ultimately hindered Region 5’s ability to protect human health from ethylene oxide emissions in a timely manner,” the report said. 

After the report, the EPA told the inspector general’s office that its Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards will create a strategy for how it will address emerging air toxin issues and how they will be handled within the office, EPA regions and with external stakeholders. 

It also said that the Air Quality Planning and Standards office has established teams and an air toxins council to improve its communication, coordination and collaboration internally and with regional offices. 

The agency’s response was dated March 5, 2021, and was written by a Biden administration official.

Tags Environmental Protection Agency EPA Ethylene Oxide Hazardous air pollutants United States Environmental Protection Agency

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