Human health v Politics

Trump’s EPA was frighteningly bad from top to bottom. EPA Administrators Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler sought to weaken the agency, as they had done their entire careers in support of the fossil fuels industries. As administrators, they put lawyers who had battled against regulations in charge of departments.

The really bad chemicals sometimes avoid scrutiny because their presence are found in very select locations, and the affect on human life is subtle at first, and takes years to cause harm. Perfect case is the burial of chemicals containing highly volatile chemicals including benzene and dioxin in Love Canal, New York, by Occidental Petroleum in the 1950’s did not become recognized as an enormous health hazard, until 1977.

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a chemical used to sterilize equipment in the health and agricultural industries. In medical applications, it is used in place of steam for instruments sensitive to moisture. In the agricultural industry, it can be used as a fumigant.

The EPA website states the following:

“Studies show that breathing air containing elevated ethylene oxide levels over many years increases the risk of some types of cancers, including cancers of the white blood cells (such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma and lymphocytic leukemia); and breast cancer in females.”

If you think this is bad, it gets worse. From the EPA website, on the effects on children, “EtO is mutagenic (i.e., it can change the DNA in a cell). Children may be more susceptible to the harmful effects of mutagenic substances.” Translation, children may be more at risk of the various types of cancer. There is nothing more sad than this.

Deputy director Andrew Wheeler ran the EPA beginning in July 2018 after Scott Pruitt quit amid 14 investigations of misconduct in 2018. It was Scott Pruitt who appointed Bill Wehrum, to be in charge of air quality. Like Pruitt, he was forced to resign after 19 months for ethic violations. There was nothing in Wehrum’s history, to indicate he would defend and enforce air quality regulations. Prior to his role at the EPA, he was a partner and the head of the administrative law group at Hunton & Williams, where he lobbied on behalf on major industrial companies and advocated for looser environmental regulations. See his bio from Wikipedia.

Willowbrook near Lake Michigan, Illinois is a nice sounding name. One can picture weeping willows along side of a brook, perfect for family outings. But this is the location of one of the Sterigenics facilities, and over time, their emissions of ethylene oxides and other chemicals were polluting the air, and increasing the risk of cancer and lymphomas.

Health issues are personal, as reported by CBS news in February 2019 (see link below):

“Matt Haller, 45, lived about a mile from the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook and now has stage-four stomach cancer. The married father of a four-year old has lost 75 pounds, as the cancer ravaged his body. He was healthy and active, and enjoyed playing hockey. He loved his career at ESPN in sales. “I had a future that had success written on it, and now I have no future,” he told CBS 2.

All this sounds familiar and very sad. For decades, the residents of Love Canal were in the dark about the toxic gases seeping from their backyards. The land on which an elementary school was built, also had the slow release of toxic gases. A snow blizzard hit in Buffalo, New York and Grand Island, NY in the winter of 1977. I know, I was working on Grand Island at the time. As the snow melted, the groundwater levels rose, and residents could smell the gases. This was the formative period of the EPA. Just six years earlier, EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus announced national standards for six common pollutants, as mandated by the Clean Air Act, signed into law by President Nixon.

Back to ethylene oxide. The Inspector General’s report issued last week states the following:

“Region 5 personnel orally communicated to one state agency and one local agency that OAR headquarters directed Region 5 to not inspect ethylene oxide facilities unless invited by a state.”

OAR headquarters is the Office of Air and Radiation, which was the responsibility of Bill Wehrum. He is not specifically named in the report.

So, the IG report makes it clear that the EPA is not carrying out its mission, at least in terms of protecting the health of residents in Michigan.

It is politics. The EPA ordered a webpage removed, which identified the elevated cancer risks in the Lake Michigan area. Bad news could hurt the incumbent president re-election campaign.

Stay tuned,

Dave

Links:

Wikipedia: William Wehrum

Chicago CBS Local News, February 2019, Sterigenics Allegedly Covered Up Toxic Emissions, Operated Secret Plants, Former Workers Say

Chicago Tribune report, April 16, 2021: Trump appointees blocked EPA from investigating ethylene oxide polluters and prevented staff from warning Americans about the cancer-causing gas, [Inspector General] report says

Top EPA official resigns amid scrutiny over possible ethics violations