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Science and Politics

EPA, White House apparently buried an HHS report on dangerous toxins near U.S. military bases

On Jan. 30, a federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staffer forwarded an email from another White House official warning that a Health and Human Services Department (HHS) study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis "is going to be extremely painful" to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Pentagon, and the EPA and Defense Department can't seem to get the HHS agency "to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be," Politico reported Monday, citing documents released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under a Freedom of Information Act request.

EPA officials including Administrator Scott Pruitt's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, and EPA chemical safety chief Nancy Beck got involved and reached out to their HHS counterparts, Politico said. Beck, who worked for the George W. Bush administration and left the Obama administration in 2012 to become a lobbyist for the American Chemical Association, suggested bumping the report up to an interagency review led by the OMB. The report is still unpublished and HHS says it has no plans to release it.

The report, from the HHS's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), found that humans are more at risk from low levels of chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS than previously thought — 12 parts per trillion (or roughly 12 grains of sand in an Olympic-size pool) of the chemicals may be dangerous, versus 70 ppt in current advisories.

The risk is especially high near military bases; the Pentagon said in March that water tested near 126 U.S. military facilities found levels of PFOA and PFOS higher than current safety guidelines. Jackson told Politico that the EPA was just helping "ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and congressional constituents and partners." Yogin Kothari with the Union of Concerned Scientists, called Beck's suggestion "extremely troubling because it appears as though the White House is trying to interfere in a science-based risk assessment."