The War on the War on Cancer
WHEN ANGELA RAMIREZ was 38, she felt a slight pain in her chest. At first she thought she had pulled a muscle, but when it didn’t go away, Ramirez went to her doctor, who diagnosed her with stage 2 breast cancer. A mother of three and a parent educator in a local public school in Lake County, Illinois, Ramirez had to undergo a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and five follow-up surgeries.
Eight years since the diagnosis, her family is still recovering. Because of complications, Ramirez is awaiting several more reconstructive surgeries. Her daughter Ada, now 15, was recently diagnosed with PTSD, in part, Ramirez thinks, because she spent much of her childhood worrying that her mother wouldn’t survive. And her husband is working 80 hours a week to cover medical expenses and lost income. “Cancer changes your whole life,” she said recently.
Ramirez used to think of her ordeal as random bad luck — an inexplicable series of genetic mutations that just happened to derail her life. But that changed in 2018, after she learned that she both lived and worked near two facilities that were emitting a cancer-causing chemical called ethylene oxide.
Two years earlier, the Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment of ethylene oxide performed by a small division of the agency known as IRIS, which crunched numbers showing that exposure to ethylene oxide caused elevated rates of tumors in the brain, lungs, uterus, and lymph systems. The technical report from IRIS, which stands for the Integrated Risk Information System, changed the classification of ethylene oxide, an odorless gas used to make other chemicals and sterilize medical equipment, from probably carcinogenic to plainly carcinogenic to humans. Based in part on several studies showing that female workers exposed to ethylene oxide had higher breast cancer rates, the report calculated a safety threshold that was 30 times more sensitive than previous estimates. Combined with agency data about local emissions, the new threshold allowed the EPA Office of Air and Radiation to identify the census tracts where residents were at increased risk of cancer from breathing ethylene oxide.
As Ramirez could plainly see on the EPA’s interactive map, the cancer risk was elevated both where she lived and, even more extremely, at the office where she worked for several years before her diagnosis, which was less than a mile from one factory that emitted the carcinogenic gas and less than three miles from another. The news was like a missing puzzle piece. “I had always found it kind of strange that I was the only one in my family who ever had cancer,” said Ramirez, who had moved to the suburbs from Chicago in 2005 in part because she wanted to be closer to nature.
Ramirez still suffers from chronic back pain and weakness. But the realization that her cancer may have resulted from emissions from the local factories has caused a different kind of suffering. “Every time I open the windows I think about it now,” she said. “I’m so angry. My kids at 2nd and 3rd grade shouldn’t have had to wonder whether their mother was going to die.”
The chemical industry also reacted strongly to the reports on ethylene oxide. In September 2018, after the National Air Toxics Assessment pinpointed the areas affected by the chemical, the American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a trade group that represents U.S. chemical manufacturers, asked IRIS to change its assessment of ethylene oxide. Dow Chemical, the biggest producer of ethylene oxide in the country and the second biggest in the world, also disputed the EPA’s assessment.
Now, political appointees at the EPA are engaged in what appears to be an end-run around the agency’s own science. While IRIS, which is staffed by career scientists, hasn’t officially backed away from its 2016 report, the Trump EPA recently announced that it would not be calling for the level of pollution reductions IRIS laid out during the previous administration, leaving people around the country more vulnerable to the known carcinogen. And that’s only one of the changes made under the Trump administration that promise to weaken protections for Americans’ health, many of which were intended specifically to stave off cancers.
Virtually no sector of the EPA’s work has escaped reversals that will cause disease and death among the U.S. population. The agency scrapped the Clean Power Plan and a rule to improve fuel efficiency standards for cars, depriving the public of not just the climate benefits but also the improvements to air quality and health both would have brought. The EPA rejected its own science in deciding not to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to autism and other neurodevelopmental problems in children. Dozens of other EPA rollbacks — including the gutting of the Clean Water Act, the undermining of guidelines on emissions of methane from landfills, the loosening of restrictions on toxic air pollution from industrial facilities, the disbanding of a panel on air pollution — will have dire health consequences, as will the dramatic reduction in the enforcement of environmental laws.
The erosion of these protections may leave Americans at greater risk of all kinds of health effects, including fertility issues, birth defects, and neurodevelopmental problems — all of which have been linked to chemical exposure. But among the most devastating of Trump’s legacies will be an increase in cancers.
Trump’s Cancer Gang
With the election of Donald Trump, a small and previously marginalized group of toxics apologists suddenly and unexpectedly took control over health and environmental regulations in the United States. Considered too fringe, too craven, and too fact-averse for mainstream politics, this closely connected group had long been dismissed for taking the idea of environmental deregulation well past the point of absurdity. Under Trump, the EPA has begun executing some of these extremists’ schemes to undercut the federal government’s ability to protect the public from life-threatening toxic chemicals.
Way back in 1996, a lawyer named Christopher Horner working for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company came up with an ambitious plan to fight back against scientific studies linking cancer to secondhand smoke. Such studies, he realized, were based on the private health data of thousands of individuals. And without that data, scientists would be unable to prove a connection between cigarette smoke and cancer. Imagine if the government required that the data used for regulations be public. If that were the case, none of the crucial private health information used by scientists would be usable. Problem solved!
Horner, who worked at the firm then called Bracewell & Giuliani, recognized that the approach had “global applicability to industry” beyond tobacco and could make it nearly impossible to regulate a wide variety of cancer-causing chemicals and pollution. Within a few years, a group funded by the Koch brothers tried to use the strategy to undermine the Clean Air Act, demanding that researchers produce their data so a pivotal study could be repeated.
That attempt to destroy air pollution protections ultimately failed, and the idea hovered on the sidelines until 2014, when a few Republican House members introduced the “Secret Science Act.” Because most members of Congress recognized the gambit as a bald attempt to subvert science — then-Sen. Barbara Boxer called it “insane,” Sen. Bernie Sanders dismissed it as “laughable” — the bill didn’t come close to becoming law that year or the next, when it was introduced again. Even in mid-2016, the only support for the idea came from the fringe.
But with the election of Donald Trump later that year, the prospects of the “secret science” scheme — and others hatched over the years to help free industry of what it saw as profit-hampering regulations — suddenly became deadly serious. Trump, who had already been dismissive of science, named Horner and others interested in undermining environmental protections to his EPA transition team and then staffed the agency with political appointees who used to work for the industries they would be regulating. In April 2018, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a rule based on the “secret science” plan, and Horner’s wildest dreams of dismantling environmental and health regulations were set to become reality.
The war on cancer was meant to help banish a disease that by 1970 had become the second-leading cause of death in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency, created that year, was part of the government’s assault on the rising tide of cancer cases. For some contaminants, such as asbestos and chemicals used in dye-making, the link to cancer was already clear. Scientists were beginning to understand that even tiny amounts of certain chemicals could alter cells, setting off a series of mutations that grow into cancerous tumors. The hope was that the agency could counter increasing cancer rates by limiting environmental exposures.
Yet 50 years after the federal government took up arms against cancer, the disease is still the second-leading cause of death. Even though cigarette smoking, the leading cause of cancer in the 1970s, has declined sharply, the American cancer rate has actually gone up over the past 40 years. Among children, who are particularly vulnerable to environmental exposures, the cancer rate has risen dramatically, increasing nearly 50 percent since 1975.
During that time, environmental exposures have been mounting. More than 140,000 chemicals and pesticides have been introduced since 1950. Even though the vast majority have not been evaluated for safety, 5,000 of them are made in such great quantities practically everyone is exposed to them. Yet most of the government spending on cancer has remained focused on treating the disease (thus lowering the death rate from cancer), rather than preventing cancer by limiting exposure to carcinogens, such as pesticides and other environmental contaminants.
Since the first major law that attempted to regulate toxic chemicals passed in 1976, chemical companies have spent billions of dollars on lobbying. The member companies of the American Chemistry Council have spent more than $1.4 billion on lobbying and $77.8 million on political contributions since 2008, according to an analysis by MapLight for this story. The ACC by itself has spent $103 million on lobbying. Though staggering, these numbers are a small fraction of the trillions generated by chemical sales over that same period.
Throughout its 50-year existence, the EPA has faced the daunting task of regulating industries that are far better resourced than the agency. But the effort to rein in powerful companies, which has been met with varying degrees of success under previous administrations, has been largely abandoned under Trump. The EPA, now headed by a former coal lobbyist and run by other former lobbyists, executives, and lawyers from polluting industries, has set about undoing health protections, some of which were specifically designed to prevent cancer.
Trump, who recently tried to take credit for a 2017 dip in cancer mortality rates and announced that he would be “curing childhood cancer very shortly,” at a rally in Cincinnati last August, presumably isn’t interested in actively causing disease and death. But his eagerness to please the polluting chemical and fossil fuel industries that support him comes at the expense of American lives.
A Mess in Texas
For ethylene oxide, the chemical that Ramirez was exposed to, the road to deregulation passes through Texas. It was there, in the summer of 2018, that regulators led by state toxicologist Michael Honeycutt began working with the producers of ethylene oxide on their own standard for the chemical.
Honeycutt, who has overseen chemical assessment for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since 1996, is known for his extremely industry-friendly approach to chemicals. Until this administration, Honeycutt made his name fighting the EPA, challenging the limits the agency tried to place on emissions of chemicals, particularly those released by the oil and gas industry. He has argued that particulate air pollution, which causes lung cancer and other diseases, can help people live longer. And working with his longtime colleague and fellow toxicologist Michael Dourson, Honeycutt loosened state protections on dozens of chemicals — rollbacks that were encouraged and welcomed by chemical manufacturers. Now, under Trump, Honeycutt’s Texas agency has essentially become a shadow EPA and he has assumed a national role in cancer policy.
The assessment of ethylene oxide that Honeycutt oversaw and the TCEQ released last year no doubt pleased the companies that make the chemical — not least because it appears to have been written by them. In June 2018, before issuing a new safety limit for ethylene oxide, Honeycutt and members of the TCEQ’s toxicology staff met in Austin with Joanna Klapacz, a toxicologist from Dow; Bill Gulledge, a senior director at the American Chemistry Council; and three scientists from Exponent, a consulting company paid by the ACC to help fend off regulation of the chemical, among them two toxicologists named Abby Li and M. Jane Teta. Representatives of Shell, BASF, and Balchem, which together with Dow released more than 200,000 pounds of ethylene oxide over the previous six years, joined the conversation by phone, according to emails of TCEQ staff released in response to a FOIA from the Sierra Club.
At the meeting, a presentation from the American Chemistry Council recommended adopting estimates of safety thresholds from a paper written by Ciriaco Valdez-Flores, a Texas-based consultant who received funding from both the ACC and the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association. The TCEQ had considered — and rejected — the paper in an assessment of ethylene oxide it released less than two years earlier because, it said, Valdez-Flores hadn’t captured all the cancer risk from ethylene oxide. Although an EPA summary of the 2016 IRIS report on ethylene oxide characterized its confidence in the breast cancer data as “particularly high,” and noted that the breast cancer component “is based on over 200 incident cases for which the investigators also had information on other potential breast cancer risk factors,” the Valdez-Flores paper didn’t include the breast cancer studies in its evaluation. And in a presentation to the group, Teta also argued against the inclusion of the breast cancer data.
Gulledge, who manages the ACC’s panel on ethylene oxide, emailed TCEQ toxicologist Jessica Myers after the meeting and offered to draft the assessment of the chemical for the state agency. “Thank you for hosting us this week,” Gulledge wrote. “We are working on several ‘white papers’ on the risk assessment modeling and our alternative approach that should be ready in the next month or so with the goal to have a draft risk assessment manuscript ready shortly thereafter.”
Asked about the email, Tom Flanagin, director of product communications for the American Chemistry Council, denied that the group drafted the risk assessment for the TCEQ. “Mr. Gulledge is referring to a separate, independent effort … for publication in a peer reviewed journal. TCEQ acted independently in preparing their risk assessment.” Flanagin did not explain why Gulledge would be communicating with TCEQ about a purportedly separate, independent effort. Ryan Vise, director of external relations for the TCEQ, also denied that the ACC drafted or edited the state agency’s assessment. Exponent did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet the proposed ethylene oxide standard that TCEQ released this summer included many of the elements that the ACC and its scientific consultants recommended at the Texas meeting. The state agency omitted the breast cancer studies and adopted the paper by Valdez-Flores as its key study, just as the industry scientists had recommended.
And minutes from a meeting of the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association held the next month also indicate that the chemical industry, led by Teta and Li, who were both at the Texas meeting, drafted the state’s assessment of the chemical. According to the minutes, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, the assessment, which would provide an alternative to the IRIS ethylene oxide value, was funded and led by the industry groups. “Jane Teta and Abby Li (Exponent) will be leading” the recasting of the assessment to the industry’s liking, the minutes explained, and “TCEQ has indicated its receptiveness to considering an alternative to the IRIS value.”
The result of this collaboration between the ethylene oxide industry and Texas was a proposed standard that was 3,500 times weaker than the IRIS threshold. The Texas number was also 50 times less protective than the standard the state had released only two years earlier. While Texas offered no scientific reason for weakening its 2017 standard, regulatory developments can help explain the oddly timed reassessment: the EPA’s recognition of ethylene oxide as a carcinogen in 2018 had led to public pressure on companies that emit the gas, which had in turn led to the industry group to ask the TCEQ to issue an alternate standard.
Just as the ACC has done, the Texas agency also attempted to justify its new number by arguing that IRIS’s calculations couldn’t be correct because the body produces some ethylene oxide on its own — an idea dismissed by scientists who are not supported by the ethylene oxide industry.
“They make a big deal of endogenous exposure and say that’s why EPA numbers can’t be meaningful,” said Jennifer Jinot, a toxicologist who worked for EPA for 26 years, 12 of which she spent working on the IRIS assessment of ethylene oxide. Jinot described the TCEQ’s focus on purportedly natural levels of the chemical as “disingenuous” and said it was just one of several tricks the state agency used to make the chemical appear safer than it actually is.
“Texas has done something completely unreasonable,” said Jinot. “They’re just low-balling the whole thing.”
In an emailed response to questions, Dow spokesperson Ashley Mendoza acknowledged that Joanna Klapacz attended the 2018 meeting at TCEQ, but noted that “she was not part of the technical presentation.” The email also said that “Dow has continued to improve our [ethylene oxide] emission reduction as part of our own sustainability goals. As science advances, our ongoing collaboration with other manufacturers and multiple agencies continues to ensure maximum human safety while delivering products consumers want and need.”
The TCEQ responded to questions for this piece with an email saying that its assessment of ethylene oxide was “on the side of the best available science.” The email also said that the more protective ethylene oxide standard, which the state agency issued in March 2017, was never intended to be permanent, but instead was “to be used until a thorough multi-year systematic review and dose-response assessment could be conducted under the extensive TCEQ toxicity factor guidelines.”
The proposed safety level could have a dramatic effect on people in Texas, where at least 27 facilities emit more than 48 tons of ethylene oxide every year. At one of these facilities, a Huntsman Petrochemical Plant in Conroe Texas, the EPA estimated the cancer risk due to the release of ethylene oxide and other chemicals to be 3,000 in a million, according to a risk assessment report the agency released in December. Nationwide, the average risk of cancer from air pollution is 32 in a million.
The Texas standard could also weaken protections for people far beyond Texas, since states often consider one another’s regulations when issuing their own. “It could mess with the legal landscape globally,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco school of medicine who studies how chemical exposures affect health. “Even if other states don’t adopt Texas’ levels, they tend to average them.”
While Honeycutt was once one of EPA’s main opponents, the Trump administration is now relying on his agency’s industry-biased assessment of ethylene oxide to guide the federal government’s approach to the carcinogen. IRIS spent years calculating its safety threshold for ethylene oxide and noted in its 2016 report that scientists have been studying the chemical’s “DNA-damaging properties” since the 1940s. Yet in early November, the EPA indicated it would not be calling for the reduction of emissions as much as the IRIS report would suggest is necessary. Instead, the EPA’s proposed rule, which it is required to finalize by March, calculated risk levels that were six to nine times weaker than those issued in 2016. An explanatory document released by EPA cited the Texas estimate as well as the request for correction from the American Chemistry Council and attributed its decision to change its safety level to “uncertainties” in the science.
The people who will be affected by the weakening of ethylene oxide protections are disproportionately poor and nonwhite, as the EPA’s own analysis shows. While the U.S. population overall is 12 percent African American, the areas with elevated cancer risks due to ethylene oxide are 21 percent African American, according to the document the agency released in November. Latinos are also at greater risk of exposure, making up 18 percent of the U.S. population and 31 percent of those living in areas with elevated cancer risk due to the chemical.
Those demographics aren’t unusual. While black and Latino people produce less pollution, people of color have a higher burden of pollution and are more likely to live near industrial facilities. Penny Dryden, who grew up near several polluting plants in the Rosegate section of Wilmington, Delaware, was for years unaware of the disparity. Dryden, 62, has had cancer three times. The first, breast cancer, was diagnosed when she was just 19. But this seemed to be a fact of life in her mostly African American neighborhood. Many of her friends and relatives as well as both of her parents had cancer.
In 2018, a facility near Dryden’s home that makes chemicals used in antifreeze and some processed foods released so much ethylene oxide into the air that the nearby Delaware Bridge had to be temporarily shut down. That was a temporary inconvenience to commuters, but for people who live within a three-mile radius of the plant — 52 percent of whom are people of color, and 31 percent of whom are below the poverty level — the chemical poses an ongoing health threat.
Although the cancers have taken a toll, Dryden still considers herself lucky. “Lots of people here have died of it, whole families, so many of my friends,” said Dryden, who has come to recognize and fight against the extra burden of both pollution and disease that are clustered in several communities of color in Delaware. And while she has no experience living in a pollution-free area, she feels certain the people making decisions that affect pollution levels around the country have no idea how it feels to live with polluted air. “The people in D.C. don’t go into communities like ours,” said Dryden. “They probably have never heard of Rosegate.”
For people like Dryden and Ramirez, who live near the facilities around the country — more than 100 — that emit the carcinogenic gas, the weakening of the ethylene oxide standard will result in even greater risks of cancer. “By undermining the way risk assessments are done, Texas has allowed these plants to put out more pollution because it’ll look like it’s safe when it’s not,” said Woodruff, the reproductive health professor. “They’re resetting the bar to allow more pollution going out into the world.”
Children will also disproportionately bear the burden of this additional pollution. As the EPA has pointed out, children may also be especially vulnerable to the mutagenic effects of ethylene oxide — as they are for other carcinogens. Simon Strong came to recognize kids’ particular vulnerability after his son, Oliver, died suddenly in June 2015. An exuberant 12-year-old who played saxophone and tended goal for his soccer team, Oliver was diagnosed with leukemia a week after he complained of his first symptom: a headache. He died just 36 hours later, leaving his parents bereft and filled with questions.
“We were there with his oncologist in floods of tears, and I said, ‘What caused this?’ and she just burst out, ‘It’s the environment,’” Strong remembered recently. He had no idea what she meant and had never thought much about cancer before Oliver’s illness. But after his son’s death, Strong, a reporter turned investigator, began researching the causes of pediatric cancer. He read with dismay about the alarming numbers of soccer players, particularly goalies, who have developed cancer; about the connection between cancer and Roundup, a weed killer he had used liberally in the family’s backyard in Florida; and about several pediatric cancer clusters in his home state.
The problem, as he learned, was also worsening. While pediatric cancer rates were increasing overall, there had been a particularly large jump in the number of cases in infants and children under 5. Yet the government seemed to be doing little to understand what was causing these cancers or to prevent them.
So Strong launched a project along with the Baylor College of Medicine to collect information about the environmental exposures of children with cancer from their families. It’s work he wishes the federal government was doing. But as Strong’s urgency about the problem was growing, the Trump administration was going in the opposite direction, unraveling the little work that was being done on the issue.
Indeed, in May, the EPA decided to pull its funding for a network of centers that had researched the effects of various substances, including chemicals, on children. One of those research hubs, the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment at Berkeley, had found that exposure to pesticides, traffic emissions, tobacco smoke, and solvents are associated with childhood leukemia, the most common children’s cancer. Staff there were continuing to research the environmental causes of the disease and to educate parents and physicians, according to the physician and epidemiologist who directs the center, Catherine Metayer. “There is still so much work to do,” said Metayer. But the center lost the $1.5 million per year it had been receiving from the EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Barring intervention from Congress, the last of its federal money will be spent by this summer. “After that, our work will have to stop,” she said.
The closure of the pediatric environmental health centers is only one of many backward steps we’ve taken in our decadeslong battle against cancer and cancer-causing exposures. The first major one came after the EPA attempted to use the Toxic Substances Control Act to ban asbestos in 1989. The ban was exactly what the EPA and the chemicals law were created to do: protect Americans from a substance that had been known for decades to cause cancer. But after the agency began the process, asbestos mining and manufacturing companies sued. A court struck down most of the government’s ban in 1991 and, since then, the agency has been wary of taking on regulatory battles it might not win. As a result, the EPA has not regulated a single chemical under the law in the almost 30 years after the 1991 ruling.
In a statement, an EPA spokesperson wrote that the agency “along with our state partners, is covering ALL bases under our legal authority to protect people’s health from asbestos exposure.” The spokesperson went on to explain an April 2019 rule that allows the agency to restrict or prohibit the use of products containing asbestos. But she declined to say why the EPA had chosen not to ban the substance altogether, as its own scientists and attorneys had recommended.
While the continued use of asbestos has deadly consequences, causing an estimated 39,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, it is just one of the chemicals the Trump administration is now in a position to greenlight. In 2016, Congress tried to improve our abysmal record on chemicals by fixing the broken Toxic Substances Control Act. The update of the law aimed to bring about greater protections by requiring the EPA to identify and restrict the most dangerous substances. But under Trump, the opposite is happening — and the opportunity to fix chemical regulation, 40 years in the making, has instead turned into another massive step backward. The assessment process, begun in the Obama era, is being carried out by an administration that is friendlier to the chemical industry than any other administration in history.
“There is no daylight between this EPA and what the big chemical companies want,” said Daniel Rosenberg, director of the federal toxics program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. “Whatever the term is for government by corporation, that’s what we’ve been living under for three years.” Lots of small decisions are involved in implementing the new law, including the choice of which chemicals to assess, what sources of information about them to use, and how to quantify the risks they pose. “And these details are all essentially being worked out by companies like Dow and DuPont and Chemours,” said Rosenberg. “It’s the worst-case scenario.”
Asbestos is now one of 10 compounds the EPA began assessing in 2016 under the new law. In August, the EPA announced that it was considering assessing an additional 20 chemicals and added another five in September. How these chemicals are assessed will affect Americans’ exposure levels and ultimately their risks for a range of health outcomes.
Having the Trump administration at the helm during a once-in-a-generation reassessment of toxic pollutants is especially disastrous for the effort to protect Americans from cancer. Of the 35 chemicals the EPA is now scrutinizing under the updated TSCA, 19 are widely considered by researchers to be carcinogenic. While only a tiny exposure can set off disease, more than 135 million pounds of these carcinogens were released in this country between 2014 and 2018, according to the most recent data from the EPA. And how dangerous they are found to be may ultimately impact federal and state limits on their use.
Obama administration officials were scrupulous when they began the assessment process back in 2016. “They clearly said we have to look at all the ways people are exposed because if we ignore even a single pathway, that can result in the difference between acceptable and unacceptable risk,” said Eve Gartner, an attorney who directs the toxics program at Earthjustice. But when Trump appointees came in to replace them at the EPA, that changed. Nancy Beck, who had been trying to convince the EPA to narrow the range of exposures it considered in chemical assessments when she was director of regulatory policy for the American Chemistry Council, joined the EPA in April 2017 and remade the rule exactly as industry wanted it.
Just as the environmental advocates feared, the first of the assessments under Beck’s rule, which were released over the past several months and will likely be finalized within the coming year, have minimized the risks posed by chemicals. “We’re seeing massive exclusions of known pathways for exposure,” said Gartner. “EPA is finding that chemicals that are universally understood to present massive risk are fine.”
Environmental groups, including Earthjustice, NRDC, and the Environmental Defense Fund, sued the EPA, arguing that the agency was wrong to rule out certain pathways of chemical exposures. In November, a federal appeals court agreed with them. If the ruling stands, EPA will be forced to consider exposures to chemicals through uses that have been phased out, which will affect the assessment of asbestos, for example, and PFOA, an industrial contaminant found in drinking water, even though the chemical is no longer used in the U.S.
Excluding consideration of certain exposures is just one of the ways industry insiders at the EPA appear to be underestimating the harms of toxic substances. “The specifics vary from one chemical to another, but by ignoring certain evidence, EPA uses the risk assessment process to put its thumb on the scales and come out with a result that is weaker and less health protective than it would otherwise be,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Each time we see one of these assessments, there are ways in which the science has been played with.”
Denison pointed to the EPA’s recent handling of a likely carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane, which is used to make other chemicals and forms spontaneously in some shampoos, cosmetics, and cleaning products. In 2013, IRIS set a safety threshold for the chemical based, in part, on studies showing that female mice exposed to it developed cancerous tumors in their livers. Yet when the EPA released its draft risk assessment of 1,4-dioxane under the new TSCA law in June, “they conveniently omitted those tumors,” said Denison. “They removed the most sensitive endpoint and as a result came up with five-fold less protective risk value.”
Another dishonest technique the EPA has used to deem chemicals safe is to change safety thresholds when chemicals don’t meet them. Although the 1963 Clean Air Act mandated that the lifetime cancer risk to an average individual should be no greater than 1 in a million, since 2008 the agency has used a much less protective risk standard for carcinogens in the air: 1 in 10,000. NRDC sued in an effort to get the EPA under George W. Bush to stick with the more protective number, but a three-judge panel that included Brett Kavanaugh ruled against the environmental group in 2008. “They gutted the law and set the course for the next two decades,” said John Walke, the NRDC attorney who argued the case. When testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018, Kavanaugh lied about the case, describing it as one in which he’d ruled for environmentalists.
Although previous administrations have used the 1-in-a-million standard when evaluating the safety of toxic chemicals, the Trump administration recently began using the 1-in-10,000 standard, Denison said. In several recent reports issued under the updated chemicals law, including a draft assessment of the deadly paint stripper methylene chloride, the EPA inexplicably used this lower bar for determining when a cancer rate for workers is unacceptable. “It looks to me like some scientists were doing the number-crunching, and somebody came up and said, ‘Yikes, look at all this risk. How do we make it go away?’” said Denison.
The EPA insists that it “is following the legal process in TSCA, which ensures that our risk evaluations are transparent and include a robust review of the available science,” according to an emailed statement from an EPA spokesperson. The statement also said, “The draft risk evaluations released so far represent the agency’s preliminary conclusions on these chemicals. EPA goes beyond what TSCA requires by peer reviewing the risk evaluations it releases in order to increase public transparency in the risk evaluation process and receive expert feedback on the science that underlies the risk determinations. If EPA’s final risk evaluations find there are unreasonable risks associated with these chemicals, the agency will propose actions to address those risks within the timeframe required by TSCA.”
A Polluter’s Paradise
There may be no better place to see the consequences of the unraveling of chemical regulation than in Texas. Home to roughly two-thirds of the nation’s petrochemical industry and a fast-growing number of factories that make plastic and its feedstocks, Texas is a hub for the production of carcinogenic compounds as well as a leader in the movement to weaken regulations of them. For years, Texas has been a polluter’s paradise. As the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries have exploded throughout the state, the TCEQ’s Honeycutt has presided over an easing of restrictions on their emissions even as his staff has been reduced.
With 1.7 million new cases estimated for 2019 in the United States, cancer is a particular problem in Freeport, Texas. Rates of Hodgkin lymphoma are elevated in this small town on the Gulf Coast, as are cancers of the liver and bile duct, lung, stomach, and nasal cavity and middle ear, according to a report that the Texas Department of State Health Services quietly released in 2018.
The report makes no mention of pollution as a possible cause of the elevated number of cancer cases, yet Freeport is home to the largest chemical production facility in the western hemisphere: 12,800 acres of holding tanks, machinery, canals, deep-water ports, and pipelines, owned by Dow. Alongside it are chemical production facilities owned by other companies, including BASF, Shintech, Huntsman, and the Olin Corporation, the largest chlor-alkali producer in the world, which bought part of its Freeport manufacturing site from Dow in 2015.
Dow’s Freeport plant produces more than 40 billion pounds of chemicals and other products, including the components of much of the world’s plastics. In the process, the plant emits hundreds of toxic chemicals. The facility released more than 200 air pollutants in 2017 and has violated its permits in every quarter of the past three years, making it a high-priority violator of the Clean Air Act. Between 2015 and 2018, the complex emitted more than 3 million pounds of unpermitted air pollution on top of what it was allowed to release, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project.
Among the pollutants being released by Dow in Freeport are 11 carcinogens that are now being assessed or considered for assessment by the EPA under the new toxic chemicals law, according to EPA data. Of those chemicals, five have been shown to increase levels of the very cancers that are elevated in Freeport. Over the past five years, the Dow plant released more than 221,000 pounds of these five chemicals, including 1,2-dichloropropane, which causes bile duct cancer and is a probable cause of cancer of the nasal cavity and inner ear; 1,3-butadiene, which has been shown to increase rates of stomach cancers (and was recently released in an explosion at another chemical plant on the Texas coast); 1,1,2-trichloroethane and 1,1-dichloroethane, both of which have been linked to liver cancer in mice; and 1,2-dichloroethane, a probable carcinogen that has been linked to stomach, liver, and lung cancers.
But initial reports that the EPA recently released on the chemicals it’s investigating omit information that the agency has in its own databases about where and in what quantities these chemicals are produced, which companies make them, and how they’re used. As a result, most people in Freeport — and other polluted communities — do not realize that the industrial facilities near them are releasing dangerous amounts of these carcinogens. Also, because they omit this critical information, the assessments themselves may not reflect the true dangers posed by these substances.
Dow has done little to address the prevalence of cancer in the area, though the company did sponsor a “Sparkles and Spurs” fundraiser in 2018 to help buy a CT scanner for the CHI St. Luke’s Health cancer center in Brazosport, Texas, which is just a 15-minute drive from the Dow Chemical plant. Some residents call it the “Dow Cancer Center” because it was built on land donated by the giant chemical company. The evening of food, fun, and “foot stompin’” country music helped the center purchase the CT scanner, which the hospital is still using to diagnose new cancer cases.
Although they are more likely to get certain cancers, residents of Freeport — where the median household income is less than $37,000 a year — may have a difficult time getting care at the local hospital. “The Dow cancer center won’t take indigent patients,” said Melanie Oldham, a Freeport resident and physical therapist who said that she has worked with hundreds of clients in the area who have had cancer. “People who don’t have good insurance end up having to drive back and forth to either Galveston or to MD Anderson, which is an hour away.” Many of them are workers at the Dow plant, according to Oldham. “These are great jobs until you’re 50 or so,” she said. “That’s when a lot of my patients develop cancer.”
Oldham pushed for years to get the state to conduct the cancer incidence study it released in 2018. The results confirmed her hunch that cancer rates in Freeport continued to exceed state and national rates. But the vindication brought no relief. “Dow could prevent a lot of these cancers,” said Oldham, “but instead it’s ‘Let’s put money into the local cancer center.’ It’s all about PR for them.”
The CHI St. Luke’s Health-Brazosport Hospital emailed a statement in response to inquiries from The Intercept saying, “CHI St. Luke’s Health is committed to serving all in our community including the poor and vulnerable. We have a consistent stewardship policy across our division that outlines our process for caring for underserved and vulnerable patients who can’t afford healthcare services.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services said it has not investigated the environmental causes of the increased number of cancer cases in Freeport. “Our protocol is to continue to monitor the situation and re-evaluate as more data becomes available,” department spokesperson Chris Van Deusen wrote in an email to The Intercept. In a separate email, Van Deusen wrote that the health department could not provide any earlier reports on cancer rates in Freeport because it doesn’t retain them after four years.
For Clarence Thompson, cancer came as no surprise. Many of the people he worked with at the Dow plant in Freeport have already died of the disease. Thompson, who was employed by a company that contracted with Dow, did pipe-fitting, welding, and machine operation at the Texas plant for more than 25 years and worked there when a cluster of brain cancer cases was identified among workers. Back then Thompson was in near constant motion, according to Eve Thompson, his wife of 43 years. “Even when he’d come in from work, he’d keep working, mow the yard, or tinker with something,” she recently recalled. “I did not marry a lazy man.”
At 68, Thompson still wants to work, but these days he can barely walk. He has trouble remembering things and difficulty eating, and suffers from near constant pain in his lower back. At first Thompson thought his symptoms were just part of growing older. But Eve suspected that something was wrong. And when she took him to a doctor in June, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells. In the months since, Thompson, who is almost 6 feet tall, has lost 50 pounds and has been hospitalized with several life-threatening infections. Thompson said he was exposed to several carcinogens while working at the Dow plant, including ethylene oxide and asbestos, both of which have been linked to multiple myeloma.
Yet even as his vitality is draining away, Thompson worries about the dangers that chemicals from the plant may pose both to other workers and neighbors.
Residents of Freeport are not the only people living dangerously near facilities that emit the carcinogenic chemicals now under scrutiny from the EPA. An analysis performed for this story by Material Research, an environmental data analysis company, shows that the chemicals are being released in particularly large quantities in eight hubs for the production and disposal of plastic. Among the most polluted hotspots are industrial areas in Lake Charles and Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Port Arthur and Houston, Texas; El Dorado, Arkansas; and Louisville and Calvert City, Kentucky.
Many people living in these highly polluted communities don’t know what chemicals they’re breathing, let alone the dangers they present, according to Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant who has worked in all of these hotspots. “But when you go there and say these are the chemicals and these are their known human health impacts, people start saying Oh, I have that, I have that, and I have that,” said Subra. “Most of those facilities have been there two or three generations and people are able to tell you not just what cancers they have but what cancers their parents and aunts and uncles had.”
More Leukemia, Please
While some carcinogenic chemicals that have already gone through the IRIS process are getting a more forgiving assessment through TSCA, the EPA is also refusing to release one IRIS report — on formaldehyde — even as it performs a new assessment of the chemical. Formaldehyde, used in building materials, glue insulation, and fabric, has been widely recognized as a cause of leukemia. In 2018, IRIS’s assessment of the chemical, which was expected to confirm the link to the blood cancer, was ready for “imminent release,” as then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt told the Senate.
Formaldehyde already accounts for more than half the nationwide cancer risk from air pollution. Because it’s so widespread — more than 93 million pounds have been released in the U.S. since 2014 — and because its safety threshold is now 30 years old and evidence of its carcinogenicity has mounted during that time, updating the number IRIS calculated would likely increase the official cancer risk in many places around the country and drive up the number of census tracts where the cancer rate is officially problematic. But in April, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency would not be releasing the IRIS report on the chemical, which had been in the works for more than a decade.
The IRIS assessment was one of 11 the agency withheld from publication, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office. (In its statement, the EPA described these reports as “reduced from the IRIS workflow.”) Wheeler said that the EPA would instead assess formaldehyde through the new toxic chemicals law, thus indefinitely delaying the bad news about formaldehyde and cancer.
It’s worth noting that the Trump appointee who now heads the EPA’s Office of Research Development where IRIS assessments are produced, David Dunlap, used to work for Koch Industries. Georgia-Pacific Chemicals, a subsidiary of Koch, is one of the country’s largest producers of formaldehyde. Before working for Koch, Dunlap handled regulation for the Chlorine Institute, a trade group to which Dow and Olin belong. Dunlap also served on the ACC’s formaldehyde panel, which has disputed the link between the chemical and leukemia. Nancy Beck, the political appointee at the EPA who rewrote the rule determining how the agency would assess chemicals, also worked for the ACC. And David Fischer, the person who replaced her at the agency after she left this summer, is an ACC alum as well, having spent a decade working there on the TSCA.
Honeycutt, who gave the keynote address at the ACC’s “premier” regulatory conference in 2018, also has strong ties to the trade group. Even though he remains in Texas, Honeycutt has had an outsized impact on chemical policy beyond the state and is in close touch with EPA staff. Before the TCEQ publicly released its ethylene oxide assessment, Honeycutt sent it to Anne Idsal, a former TCEQ employee who is now running the EPA’s Air Office, which is steering the agency’s policy on ethylene oxide. A Texan with close ties to the oil and gas industry, Idsal’s father owned the ranch where Dick Cheney shot a Texas attorney while hunting quail.
Honeycutt also emailed an explanation of the assessment to Erin Chancellor, another former TCEQ employee who now heads the EPA’s regional office in Texas, telling her to “hold it close.” Texas’s top toxicologist may have written about ethylene oxide to other EPA staff and industry representatives, but the Texas agency has refused to provide some documents in response to a Sierra Club public records request specifically asking for communications between TCEQ staff and a long list of interested parties, including the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, Chevron Phillips, Exxon Mobil, Formosa, Georgia-Pacific, and Dow/DuPont. In September, after the Sierra Club pushed to get the documents the TCEQ had withheld, the attorney general of Texas ruled in its favor. In response, the TCEQ took the unusual step of suing the attorney general rather than complying with the decision. That case is now pending.
Asked about Honeycutt’s emails to Idsal and Chancellor, the TCEQ’s spokesperson wrote in an email that “TCEQ routinely interacts and share information with EPA.” His email also said that the state attorney general didn’t rule on whether certain documents “fall within exceptions to disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act” and that the only way to get him to address the question was to sue.
Meanwhile, Honeycutt is also making changes that will affect how all cancer-causing chemicals are treated throughout the country. In 2017, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt named Honeycutt chair of the agency’s influential Science Advisory Board. The group is supposed to provide scientific advice to the administrator, but under Trump it has been stacked with industry apologists. This summer, Honeycutt, along with fellow advisory board members from Dow Chemical, Exxon Mobil, and the American Chemistry Council, quietly began proposing profound and lasting changes to the EPA’s cancer guidelines.
Throughout the EPA’s almost 50-year history, the agency has held that there is no safe level of a carcinogen. But Honeycutt and his colleagues on the advisory board have proposed reversing that assumption. “They want to flip it so there can be safe levels of cancer-causing chemicals,” said Jen Sass, a senior scientist at NRDC, who sees the move as a ruse for allowing companies to freely release pollutants. “Their presumption is that low levels of carcinogens aren’t harmful and might even be good for you. And industry wants to define low level as whatever level you’re exposed to.”
In an emailed response to questions about the cancer guidelines, a spokesperson for the agency wrote, “The EPA is currently considering the SAB member’s individual comments as well as those provided by the public as they consider next steps for this project.”
Because the nation’s cancer guidelines are rewritten very infrequently — the most recent version was published in 2005 — Sass fears that the new ones will have an enduring impact. “Guidances like this last for decades,” she said. “I don’t know how this could be undone later.”
Making America Sick Again
Other hard-to-reverse plans that could result in increased cancers rates throughout the country are also quietly moving ahead. On December 31, the deregulatory dream of tobacco industry attorney Christopher Horner took another step closer to becoming national policy. While Trump was preparing to ring in the new year at Mar-a-Lago with Rudy Giuliani, Honeycutt released an analysis of the proposed secret science rule — now rebranded “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” — on behalf of the EPA’s science advisory board. The EPA now has to answer several questions the board posed in that document. Once it is finalized, the rule will have to undergo a 60-day comment period. But after that, the once pie-in-the-sky scheme is likely to become the law of the land.
If and when it does get finalized and survives the legal challenges it will certainly face, the secret science rule will be even more crippling to health-based regulations than Horner first envisioned. His original idea was to require that studies used to make regulatory decisions be reproducible — which sounds fine in theory until you understand that they are often based on confidential private health data of thousands of individuals. And an earlier version of the EPA’s proposed rule called for placing these restrictions only on certain studies. But the EPA amended the proposal last year to require that all raw data and models underlying regulatory decisions be made available for reanalysis, with exceptions possible only on the administrator’s whim.
The requirement would mean that even science that was used to guide past regulations may be up for grabs. The EPA’s 2016 ethylene oxide assessment was partially based on breast cancer incidence data that contained confidential personal information, so under the proposed secret science rule that data could be ruled illegitimate. The rule could also undercut the utility of all the data that Simon Strong is collecting in honor of his son. Because that information will be collected in accordance with standard privacy protocols, it wouldn’t be considered in regulatory decision-making.
And the EPA could be prevented from basing any regulation on studies of cancer clusters like the one near the Dow plant in Freeport, Texas. “The way you show a cluster is to go to a community and enter their confidential health information and compare that to other areas,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of dozens of groups that oppose the proposed rule. “But you wouldn’t be able to release that raw data because it’s confidential.”
The rule could render other groundbreaking science useless for protecting public health, too, such as studies showing the link between air pollution and lung cancer, between smoking and various cancers, or between the industrial contaminant PFOA and testicular and kidney cancer. The change would mark a profound shift both for the U.S. government and for the American people. “It’s saying what’s important is no longer the public interest but the industrial interest,” said Rosenberg. “Cancer is the most obvious and feared sign of ignoring public interest. And this will lead to more cancer.”
Sharon Lerner covers health and the environment for The Intercept and is a reporting fellow at Type Investigations. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, and the Washington Post, among other publications, and has received awards from the Society for Environmental Journalists, the American Public Health Association, the Park Center for Independent Media, the Women and Politics Institute, and the Newswoman’s Club of New York. Her series, The Teflon Toxin, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
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