“THE PUBLIC, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” a White House staffer wrote in a newly revealed email, calling the release of a new Department of Health and Human Services study a “potential public relations nightmare.” After the White House forwarded the staffer’s email to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also oversees the chemical industry and consulted with HHS, the study was suppressed and remains unpublished. Meanwhile, communities across the country may be exposed to unhealthful levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, chemicals linked to thyroid conditions, weakened immune systems, developmental defects and other health problems.
Now the email is out, even as the HHS report remains under wraps, and the administration looks both secretive and uncaring about Americans’ health.
At issue are chemicals known as PFAS, which were used for decades in nonstick coatings and firefighting foam. Though they are being phased out, these chemicals linger in the environment and in human tissue, and in sufficient amounts they can do serious damage. PFAS water contamination has been detected in communities near military bases, where firefighting foam was used, adjacent to industrial plants and in other areas.
The EPA found in 2016 that PFAS drinking-water concentrations above 70 parts per trillion are dangerous. Health and Human Services experts were poised to conclude that the threshold for concern should be much, much lower. A lower threshold would spur communities concerned about the risks of living near major installations to do more to protect their residents. It would also cost money, raising cleanup costs for the Defense Department and at toxic civilian sites, and cause public concern. Since the White House staffer’s email warning of PR blowback circulated around the Trump administration, the HHS report has sat unpublished for months, according to a Politico report this week.
The White House Office of Management and Budget, where the email appears to have originated, did not respond to a request for an explanation. For his part, EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson argued that his agency is trying to “ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners.” Getting government scientists on the same page about the dangers of PFAS would be good, but it is not worth holding back alarming conclusions about a serious public-health issue. Mr. Jackson’s reasoning also does not explain the White House’s apparent preoccupation with optics rather than science.
The EPA stressed that it is holding a conference on PFAS next week, at which the chemicals’ risk profile will be addressed. That’s good. Before that happens, HHS should finally release its report so the participants will have as informed a discussion as possible.
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