For Immediate Release: Tuesday, August 10, 2021
Contact: Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933; Kirsten Stade firstname.lastname@example.org
EPA Scientists Should be Able to Consult with Colleagues
Bans on Internal Communication Undercut Scientific Quality and Integrity
Washington, DC — Scientists working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been forbidden from speaking to colleagues concerning safety assessments of new chemicals, according to a recent disclosure by agency scientists. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is urging EPA to rescind these internal prohibitions and reprimand the managers responsible for issuing them.
Last week, scientists working with the New Chemicals Division of EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention filed a disclosure detailing the techniques managers use to prevent adequate safety assessments of new chemicals. As a result, many chemicals are rushed into the stream of commerce despite incomplete information about potential hazards.
One tactic managers have used to complete assessments within 90 days is forbidding assessors from communicating with other specialists. In their disclosure, scientists recounted being reprimanded for reaching out to other employees for advice and confirmation of their work.
This issue is critical because the New Chemicals program does not have sufficient staff trained in every specialty (inhalation toxicology, nanotechnology, cancer biology, animal pathology, epidemiology, developmental and reproductive toxicology, or inorganic chemistry, among other areas) involved in conducting a risk assessment. Specialists can most easily fill in knowledge gaps by consulting with other specialists who have the requisite expertise; this is particularly important for less experienced employees.
“Forbidding consultation is an abusive practice which compromises the scientific integrity of chemical assessments and prevents accurate hazard information from being completely reflected, to the ultimate detriment of worker and public safety,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse. “These consultation restrictions make a mockery of EPA’s claim that it ‘uses an integrated approach that draws on knowledge and experience across disciplinary and organizational lines.’”
PEER’s Whitehouse today sent a letter to Dr. Michal Freedhoff, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, requesting that she adopt a policy prohibiting restrictions on intra-agency communications and encouraging intra-agency consultation whenever appropriate or helpful. In addition, PEER is asking Dr. Freedhoff to discipline managers responsible for instituting, maintaining, or enforcing these prohibitions.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan and other Biden appointees have pledged to redress abuses in internal agency practices that have worsened in recent years, but there has been uneven follow-through. For example, a Regan memo pledging EPA “should be accessible to the press” was followed by a directive from the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics forbidding employees “to answer press questions directly.” Mr. Regan has not clarified whether agency employees may speak to reporters.
“EPA is supposed to bring all of its expertise to bear in protecting public health,” added Whitehouse, noting that these basic reforms are a measure of whether, as Mr. Regan has proclaimed, “Science is back” at EPA. “Putting overworked scientists in silos under orders that they cannot even talk to their colleagues is a clear sign that science is not yet back at EPA.”