skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Daniel Rosenberg’s Blog

White House sides with chemical industry against kids, stalls EPA hazard reviews of toxic chemicals indefinitely

Daniel Rosenberg

Posted September 13, 2011

, , , , , ,
Share | | |

Corporate polluters won two big victories recently, but you only heard about one. That was president Obama's decision to block EPA from issuing cleaner smog standards. His decision provoked such outrage across the country that the White House switchboard was jammed by angry callers.

You didn't hear about the second because, according to multiple sources, the White House worked behind the scenes to stop EPA from issuing a hazard assessment of the cancer-causing chemical TCE – and is working to effectively shut down the EPA’s program for assessing the hazards of chemicals – the basis for setting and updating health standards for drinking water, air quality, and clean-up of contaminated soil.   TCE (Trichloroethylene) is a widely-used solvent and is one of the most commonly found chemicals at Superfund sites across the country.  You may recall it was TCE that gave kids leukemia in Woburn, MA and because the subject of a famous book and movie, A Civil Action. 

EPA was set to release its final updated assessment of TCE on Friday, September 2nd, (the same day the Administration blocked EPA from issuing a new health standard for ozone).   The updated assessment concludes that TCE is a known human carcinogen (whether you drink it, breath it, or absorb it through your skin), and causes even more chronic diseases than previously thought. In addition to cancer, TCE has been linked with harmful effects to the central nervous system, kidney, liver, immune system, male reproductive system, and developing fetus.  Because the updated assessment would lay the groundwork for more protective cleanup standards and exposure limits, the chemical industry has fought for more than twenty years to prevent EPA from updating its assessment – along with the Departments of Energy and Defense, which created a lot of those Superfund sites.  Meanwhile, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and the National Academies of Science have consistently endorsed EPA’s updated assessment.  In 2006, the National Academies recommended that EPA finalize its assessment so that efforts to reduce exposure to TCE could be made “expeditiously.”  Friday came and went, but the TCE assessment was not released. The same day draft assessments of two other chemicals – (1,4 dioxane and n-Butanol)  that had been made available for public comment on August 31st were mysteriously rendered “temporarily unavailable”.  

These assessments are conducted by EPA’s IRIS program (IRIS stands for Integrated Risk Information System, which may be why few people are familiar with it). Although it is obscure, the assessments conducted under the IRIS program are extremely important.  They are the scientific foundation for health standards that are set to protect us from pollution in air, drinking water and contaminated soil. Word has begun to circulate that the White House has moved to stop any more IRIS assessments from being released – including for tetrachloroethylene or “perc” which is best known as the cancer-causing chemical commonly used in dry-cleaning, and a new cancer risk estimate for arsenic.  That’s funny, because that’s what the chemical industry and one of its scientists-for-hire demanded earlier this summer in a letter to the White House hatchet man Cass Sunstein, and in testimony before the House Science Committee’s Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee.  That was part of the industry’s campaign to discredit EPA and its scientists by distorting and misrepresenting the findings of a National Academies review of another long-delayed assessment of formaldehyde.  The chemical industry was also apoplectic that a separate Report on Carcinogens from the National Toxicology Program in June concluded that formaldehyde caused cancer, including leukemia, and that styrene was a probable carcinogen (the industry has now sued to overturn the NTP’s finding on styrene). In a beltway journal report [Risk Policy Report – subscription required] today an unnamed industry representative went so far as to brag about the work done “behind the scenes” to pull the strings that stalled the program.

The IRIS program was plagued by political interference throughout the Bush Administration and was sufficiently paralyzed that it was only issuing 2 assessments per year, creating a backlog of hundreds of chemicals requiring initial or updated hazard assessments. A key part of the problem was that the OMB under the Bush Administration inserted itself directly into the IRIS process, and required EPA to submit draft assessments for multiple rounds of review by the White House. The problem was so bad that the Government Accountability Office published a report about it, and designated the program as one at “High Risk” of failure due to the EPA’s inability to issue hazard assessments (the other two federal programs designated as “high risk” by GAO were those for regulating the financial industry and medical devices).  When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson first took office, she began to repair the damage to the IRIS program, and reduce the backlog of chemical assessments.  Issuing the TCE assessment after two decades would be an important step forward toward restoring the program’s credibility and effectiveness.  Maintaining a steady flow of assessments will be even more critical.

The public wants to be protected from exposure to toxic chemicals in the air, the water, and in the products they bring into their homes every day. But it seems that the White House isn’t thinking about health, the environment, or the public, only what the chemical industry and other big polluters are demanding.  Preventing EPA from issuing a final assessment of TCE -- or reverting to the Bush administration’s approach of continual White House interference to block release of assessments or demand weakening changes sought by the chemical industry – would be a deliberate decision to consign America’s children, and the public at large, to prolonged exposure to carcinogens and other toxic substances in their air and water.  In the health realm, it is hard to think of a worse legacy than that.

In the movie, A Civil Action: John Travolta played a lawyer with the swagger and cajones to stand up to W.R. Grace and their phalanx of lawyers and scientists for hire.  He fought to protect public health, the environment and to win justice for innocent children and other citizens of Woburn who were harmed by cancer-causing chemicals in their drinking water.  One would have thought that was a role President Obama and his White House advisors would be eager to play.  Instead, behind closed doors, it appears they have sided with the polluters who continue to this day to fight efforts to strengthen health standards for TCE and hundreds of other toxic chemicals.  Like a really sad movie, it’s enough to make you weep.

Share | | |


JeromeSep 13 2011 12:30 PM

So, this is the "change we can believe in?" I don't think so...Jerry Ensminger

JeromeSep 13 2011 12:36 PM

The protection of public health and the environment have been main party platforms for the Democratic party for many years and while my politcal door “swings both ways” (I am a registered Independent) I too am very troubled by the lack of concern for these important issues by BOTH parties. I have been involved in the Camp Lejeune drinking water contamination issue for 14 years and I have encountered resistance from members of both Republicans and Democrats on this important issue. Everyone in Washington, D. C. loves to wrap themselves in our flag and make patriotic statements about taking care of our troops and their families, that is until they are confronted with an issue like Camp Lejeune where our leadership failed and their own documentation proves it. Then all of the politicians are running for cover and when confronted on the issue they have “no comment!”

The only things which make this planet capable of supporting life is a protective atmosphere, oxygen, and water…we (humans) are ruining all three at a breakneck pace…wake up people! Jobs are one thing, being able to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of your labor is another! Jerry Ensminger

JeromeSep 13 2011 12:42 PM

It is a shame, but our once credible and honorable National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has become nothing more than scientific “hired guns” who will form a committee, “cherry pick” the literature for that committee to review, and write a report that conforms to the contractee’s desires. Our Department of Defense (DOD) alone makes up 17% of the NAS’ annual budget because when DOD doesn’t like a newly proposed regulatory standard they simply contract the NAS to write a report which will create doubt and delay the standard from being enacted. Other large contractees of the NAS are the Department of Energy, NASA, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance…ghee, go figure! I can guarantee all of you that their alliance with the NAS doesn’t have the protection of public health or the environment at heart! The NAS' "peer review" process is an insult to the very meaning of the words transparency and science! Jerry Ensminger

Susan UtseySep 13 2011 02:50 PM

I am very disappointed in the White House on this one!. To hold back the long awaited assessment of TCE is a slap in the face to the thousands of servicemen and their dependents that were exposed at Camp LeJeune. I was exposed as a young toddler while my father was stationed there and my health has suffered. It really feels like our government does not care about the health of it's citizens. Future generations are going to suffer as well when our country does not value protecting the environment and making sure this does not happen again. Looks like the special interest groups have won again; but only short-term, their health will be affected and so will their childrens' if a safe healthy planet is not a priority.

Carol PerlmutterSep 13 2011 02:53 PM

I am one of the many people who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). Some people believe MCS to be a psychological disorder while others feel it is a nuisance, made-up illness. I did not ask to become chemically sensitive. It happened over a period of years from exposures to toxic mold in my home, then years later in an office that sustained water damage and attempted to hide it, then from exposure to new carpeting my new employer installed just months after I arrived. As a result of inhaling airborne mold and off-gassing chemicals such as formaldehyde, I now suffer from chronic conditions ranging from reactive airway disease, rhinitis, sinusitis and neurological disorders. There are days I cannot breathe. There are days I can breathe but then enter a new indoor environment such as an office or someone’s home and if there is new paint, new carpeting, recently applications of air fresheners or anti-bacterial products such as Lysol, I can become very ill. Inhaling in those environments is like breathing acid vapors. My chest constructs and I cannot breathe. My airway begins to burn, I become dizzy and experience ringing in my ears and become extremely fatigued and disoriented. There are some MCS sufferers who are so ill they cannot leave their homes. Others are in the beginning stages of this environmental illness and as their exposures to toxic environments continues, their illness will worsen. Those of us with MCS are extremely well read and know more about chemicals in household products, the pesticides sprayed on produce and our lawns and trees, than most of society. To learn that the president and his staff have put the brakes on any investigations involving chemicals and their relationship to our citizens’ health is a disgrace. We who suffer from MCS are truly the canaries in the coal mines. We are aware of and become ill from very low levels of chemicals when others do not. However, continued exposure to toxins, whether in our air, water, homes or food will create many more MCS suffers. I had so many plans for my future and they are now gone because I can no longer tolerate most environments due to all the chemicals, many of which are in household products promoted on television. I am glad I will not be around to witness the health of those several generations from now. By then MCS will affect the majority of the population but the chemical companies will still be turning a blind eye to that while insisting there have been no formal research studies performed to prove the connection between MCS (and many autoimmune diseases) and chemicals.

Will HillSep 13 2011 03:06 PM

Our enemies do not need to destroy us through the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction when we are so willing as a society to do it ourselves because of the unbridled greed of a few rich people and companies and their lobbyists. The fact is that big business has done more harm to this country, including the military industrial complex, than any external enemy ever has. All we have to do is look at what is ubiquitous in our environment today to see the chemicals that industry wanted to use in times gone by. TCE, DDT, the Donora Smog of 1948, the radioactive releases of three mile and experiments by CIA and military, the list is long and infamous of the many harms done to our country by powerful men and companies and government functionaries. We, as a country, just spent the past ten years fighting wars that started from the murder of these 3000 Americans. But these companies and rich industrial magnates and governmental functionaries and lobbyists have literally caused the death of millions of our fellow Americans across the decades. You would think that we would learn our lesson. You would think that we wold hunt these criminals and despoilers down and make sure that they could never do this again. You would think that we would make certain that such tragedies could never befall another generation of our country's population. You would be wrong.

The American public is ever ready to be sold on the value of free enterprise at the expense of the individual lives that it destroys. Unless and until it strikes home to a particular family or individual. By then it is too late and it is very hard to tie the causes back to the wallets of the greedy ones who convinced us to throw out the rules and damn the consequences.

Wake up, America! Take back your country and protect your lives before yet more Mass Destruction befalls all of us in the name of the almighty dollar!!!

I have, until recently, been a life-long Democrat, I am sorry to say that I can consider myself one no more when the leader of the party does this. Enough is enough. We need to return to sanity and prudence as a nation and we need to find away to stop all forms of lobbying and lobbyists from corrupting our system of government! We need Hilary or some other strong leader to step up and stop the madness!

I do not care if it is Hilary or an independent, I just know that we can not continue with business as usual in Washington, DC and allow special interests to continue to put all of our health at risk again and again in the name of the free market.

David JohnsonSep 13 2011 04:05 PM

Once again the government of the country that many of us signed up to protect, has taken the easy way out. For those of us that feel the effects daily of having been exposed to toxic chemicals while stationed at Camp Lejeune, this should come as no surprise. What ever happened to honor and integrity? Does Semper Fi now mean always faithful to whoever makes the largest campaign contribution? Look to see who profits. That's where the answers can be found.

Mike PartainSep 13 2011 07:19 PM

The average American does not possess the scientific knowledge or time to acquire the knowledge needed to inform ourselves about the many different chemicals consumed by industry or used in our households every day. Instead, we rely on our government and its agencies such as the EPA and the ATSDR to inform us of these risks. It is a sacred trust, a public trust.

Up until four years ago I never put much thought into what comprised a glass of water. That all changed when I was diagnosed with male breast cancer at the very young age of 39. Shortly after my diagnosis, I learned that while my mother was pregnant with me aboard Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina, we were exposed to horrendous levels of PCE, TCE and Benzene in our tap water aboard the base. Today, I am one of 71 men who share the unique commonality of exposure to the contaminated tap water while at Camp Lejeune and male breast cancer. We are also seeing many of the same cancers researchers have already identified to be associated with exposures to chemicals such as TCE.

The EPA's risk assessment for TCE was in the can and all set to go. Now 30 years of research is gone with one decision. According to a 1986 court decision, the judge found that by the 1950's TCE was known to be unfit for human consumption. Now here we are 60 years later and no new standards for the chemical? It seems that our President has betrayed the public trust and pandered to industry who are telling him that he looks marvelous in his new clothes.

Allen WrightSep 13 2011 07:26 PM

I find it absurd, horrifying, and simply unbelievable that the president, congress, the judiciary - in short, any governing body comprised of people who have children and are interested in a safe, clean, and secure future for them - would wipe away such an important decision. Industry MUST be held accountable for the poisons they release. We will pay the piper someday if we don't clean up now.

Teresa WebsterSep 13 2011 09:51 PM

I'm so disappointed in the way our goverment is dealing with everything now a days. its a disgrace to all that live in a country that is suppose to be the best place to live and raise your family and suppose to be free speech and liberty for all. we need our voices heard ... loud and clear.. our voices are not heard, because of the pockets of the wealthy, the greed. selflish , uncaring of our goverment. This is American.! Need to email the president and all of congress on this and let them know we are angry . My husband suffers from many aliments because of the DOD and their turing a blind eye to what they did to all of us a Camp Lejeune. SHAME ON ALL of congress to allow this ..

Linda DelpSep 14 2011 01:20 PM

How long must people suffer from all the poisons these companies are putting in just about everything. Many have been patient and writing our leaders but they never do anything but write letters that really mean nothing.

Very disturbing indeed.

AlexandraSep 14 2011 05:18 PM

So upset by this news! The chemical industry is poisoning our environment. This must be stopped! This is why so many people are getting chronic diseases.

Mary Wheeler McFarland RN JD NCSNSep 14 2011 11:32 PM

What are you thinking Mr President. You have children, too!!!

phyllis carrSep 15 2011 08:36 AM

DEAR MR PRESIDENT HOW do i tell my grandchildren of five that this place they and i call AMERICA is letting them suffer with the toxin's from chemical living in there back yard from compressor station and gas well's . this place my family and i call home has been destroyed by the gas industry and my supose to be good neighbore's . each day my daughter jeaney start's her day fitfighting blister's in her nose on her face and children crying begging her to just help them not to have aburning throat today a headache and so so much more when the doctor's can't help them how oh how can she . we have been putting up with this for a long time now i don't know how much more you think we can as america people should . every one can't be lieing to the fact the gas industry is making us sick. we can't even go out side at time's when the smell of toxins our there we fill like prisoner's in our own home this is like a war sone here with all the equpment here we our boxted in and no where to go . why were our neighbor's alloud to do this to us if they never sold there rightis to have this done my family would not be sick they were never sick before this so you tell me what else caused it all lead's to the gas why aren't you hearing the crys from my family and other'sdo you tell your daughter's they can't go out side and play because if they do the smell's will get them then why does my family have to please change your mind and scend someone to come live our life and have to deal with what we have to deal with every day here in p PA.

susan utseySep 15 2011 03:11 PM

I was so disappointed that the TCE report was not released! Now I'm wondering if it had any scientific value? Was it written by the Department of Defense and special interest groups; or was it real research? Maybe it was a worthless document that would be torn apart by the scientific community?

Agent Orange LegacySep 15 2011 08:35 PM

This is especially disturbing news for the families of Vietnam veterans exposed to agent orange. Their sons, daughters and grandchildren are already suffering from intergenerational effects of agent orange. The continued exposure to such toxins and endocrine disruptors only makes their lives more difficult. Our future is veering along a crash course. Esp. if officials who represent the 'common good' don't act in the our (the people) best interest.

Jim MorelandSep 16 2011 08:36 AM

The message is clear Mr. President, you have sold out the citizens of the United States of America. It is obvious to me that you are just another politician that came to DC to wheel and deal. I supported your election with the hope of CHANGE, all we are getting is what the FAT CATS in this country dictate to our elected leaders. We have a failure of leadership on all levels. This action is nothing but politically motivated to save the Chemical Industry and the government who is the biggest polluter MONEY!!!

These CHEMICALS are KILLING all Americans. We are all doomed!!!! We are literally killing ourselves and the vast resources that God placed on this earth. But then God through our Lord Jesus Christ did say that there would be signs of death and devastation in the end times. Only God knows when the end of time will come, BUT rest for sure this very day the end of this great country is ticking away on us all and all I have to say is GOD forgive our leaders for they do not know what they do, have mercy on us all.

It is pointless to write some eloquent academia note here because it falls on deaf ears. The only thing that will save our countries citizenry, is GOD himself. I will say that when so many citizens are this dismayed and disillusioned about their government then things usually change radically, our history of mankind has a long list of those once invulnerable empires all collapsed on themselves. Listen People, we are doomed, we are legalizing the killing of our own people. Corruption is killing our once hallowed government. Ii"IKE" had it right when he warned the the Military Industrial Complex will be the demise of our democracy is quite prophetic given our circumstances of today. It is not entitlements that is killing our budget, but it is the ENTITLED that are killing this country. Rise up people and make your voices heard. God bless our Marines and Sailors who have been abandoned by there country. This is not melodramatic, this is the truth, the end is upon us all. Jim Moreland PA-C, MHS, Richmond KY, in case anyone is looking for me......

Larry PearsonSep 17 2011 07:32 PM

I have come to believe our government is completely disconnected to those it is supposed to represent. The first step towards restoring democracy is to create a press corps that is free and independent rather than the mouth piece of those in power.

I no longer believe anything the government says.

Truth Justice and the American way (yea right)

Susan UtseySep 20 2011 09:54 AM Tce and it's effects on children. Those of us who were exposed at Camp LeJeune have a lot at stake here as well as the general public. The report would have helped set standards for safe levels of toxins in the environment in the future.

Please take a minute and sign the petition!

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Daniel Rosenberg’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In