Washington, DC — New Jersey state scientists had to run a political gauntlet to publish a risk assessment on a chemical that has spread to contaminate drinking water in several states, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). One official seeking to block publication of the study was Lisa Jackson, then the state environmental commissioner and now head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The controversy concerns perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical used in nonstick cookware and stain resistant fabrics, such as “Scotchgard”. PFOAs do not break down in the environment and thus build up in the body. Although concentrations of PFOA in drinking water are relatively low, ingestion of PFOA-tainted water multiplies blood concentration 100-fold higher. Among other effects, PFOAs disrupt human hormone and reproductive systems at blood levels as low as four parts per billion.
In October 2008, a PFOA risk assessment paper prepared by New Jersey Department of Environmental protection scientists was “pulled from submission for publication” under orders from then DEP Commissioner Jackson. Her rationale was the need for additional peer review, even though the paper had already been peer reviewed and was undergoing vetting before publication in the prestigious peer review journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Several months after Jackson left DEP, the study, entitled “Occurrence and Potential Significance of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) Detected in New Jersey Public Drinking Water Systems”, was eventually published in the journal’s May 8, 2009 edition. Despite this risk assessment evidencing the need for stricter standards, New Jersey has yet to incorporate it into drinking water limits. Neither has EPA, which is grappling with the issue now under Jackson.
Significantly, before she left Jackson instituted several changes at DEP that make it far more difficult for public agency environmental science to be published, including:
- Abolished the DEP Division of Science, Research & Technology, thus crippling the ability of the state to perform similar scientific studies in the future. In the process, Eileen Murphy, the science division director who protested Jackson’s attempt to pull the study, was removed; and
- Convened an industry dominated Efficiency Task Force and accepted recommendations to promote private sector science in agency decision-making; and.
- Commissioned a body of outside scientists to review and approve all future DEP scientific work
“The goal of industry is to decouple science from the regulatory process and they are succeeding both in the few states, such as New Jersey, which had scientific capabilities, and at EPA, as well,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “As these new chemicals enter first our water supply and then our bodies, industry has been able to stall at every step, from risk assessment to regulation and enforcement.”
Even with all these strictures on its science, last month DEP officials imposed new non-disclosure rules requiring approval by political officials before scientific or technical information is disclosed.