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Public-interest groups raise pressure on feds to release toxic chemical study

Report calls for stricter limits than EPA's guidelines

  • Jon Hurdle
The former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove and present day Horsham Air Guard Station is shown in Horsham, Pa.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

The former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove and present day Horsham Air Guard Station is shown in Horsham, Pa.

Fifty-three public-interest organizations are pressing the federal government to release a study on the health effects of a class of chemicals that have been linked to cancer, immune-system problems and developmental issues in young children.

The campaigners, ranging from environmental and health groups to academics and fishermen, urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to publish the study on PFAS chemicals, also known as PFCs, by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of HHS.

The report has been reportedly blocked by the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency because it recommends  stricter limits on the chemicals than those advocated, but not required, by the EPA.

“The government should be sharing information about these dangers, not hiding it,” the groups said in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on June 7. “We call on you to release the ATSDR report immediately so Americans know what’s in the water we drink, and states, public health officials and local water utilities are armed with the best-available science on these dangerous chemicals.”

The government has been under pressure to release the study since reports in Politico and the independent newsletter Inside EPA in May published emails showing White House and EPA officials worrying that publication of the ATSDR study would create a “public relations nightmare” for officials trying to explain a wide difference between two federal agencies’ health guidelines on the chemicals.

For one of the chemicals, PFOS, the ATSDR’s limit in drinking water is one-tenth of that recommended by the EPA, while another chemical, PFOA, is subject to a limit of one-seventh of the EPA’s level, according to the reports. Those and other related chemicals were used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and fire-retardant fabrics. They have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers, but are widespread in the environment, and exist in high concentrations in some places.

Campaigners say their continued presence in some public and private water systems is a risk to public health.

ATSDR has said it is preparing to release a “toxicological profile” of the chemicals but has not said when the study would be published. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday morning.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

File photo: The Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said he doesn’t have the authority to release the study, but promised at a recent national summit on PFAS that his agency would look at whether the chemicals need to be regulated at the federal level.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, accused Pruitt of a “lackluster” response to a demand by Fitzpatrick and 12 other lawmakers from both parties for the study to be released. The Congressman, who represents parts of Bucks County where high levels of PFAS have been found, said on May 25 that it was “unacceptable” for Pruitt to claim that he could not release the study.

Fitzpatrick said in a statement on Tuesday that he is still pressing the federal government to release the ATSDR report, and that he supports the same call from the public-interest groups.

In the absence of federal regulation of the chemicals, some states such as New Jersey are setting their own legal limits that are  stricter than the EPA’s guidelines. Pennsylvania does not have its own standards but follows the EPA’s health guidelines.

Many PFAS contamination sites are at military bases that used firefighting foams containing the chemicals. In Pennsylvania, the chemicals have been found at levels exceeding the EPA guidelines at Warminster and Willow Grove naval stations, and Horsham Air Support Group  in Bucks County; the North Penn Army reserve base in Montgomery County; the Letterkenny Army Depot in Franklin County, and at the Harrisburg Air National Guard base, according to a Defense Department report to Congress in March. In some case, the contamination has occurred in public and private water supplies outside the military bases.

Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, a national group that signed the new letter, said there’s a growing awareness in Pennsylvania of the chemicals’ risk to public health.

“The experience in Pennsylvania is that the more we look at this problem, the bigger we are realizing it is, and it’s important for the federal government to bring their resources and expertise to help local communities,” he said.

Arnowitt argued that the continued non-appearance of the ATSDR report is in itself the “public relations nightmare” that the White House feared, according to the emails.

“We are hopeful that they will understand that the public relations nightmare they are having is blocking the report,” he said.

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