Staff Aimed To Shield Pruitt From Chemical Risk He Hid From Public

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt smiles as he testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the FY2019 Environmental Protection Agency budget in Washington, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

When former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt picked out an ornate desk as part of this expensive office remodel last year, staff members planned to take precautions to protect him from the ill effects of formaldehyde in the furniture, Politico reported Thursday. Yet Pruitt delayed the release of an EPA report warning the public about the dangers of … formaldehyde.

Aides were ready to take action when they noticed a California warning on a desk Pruitt was considering ordering, noting that the furniture contained formaldehyde, a carcinogen found in pressed wood and many other products. It’s not known if the desk was ultimately ordered. 

But acting deputy chief of staff Reginald Allen contacted Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who was then head of the agency’s toxic chemicals office, to ask about the warning, according to emails obtained by nonprofit watchdog group American Oversight. She suggested the desk be aired out for days before setting it up in Pruitt’s office. Ironically, she noted the “good news” is that California “regulates formaldehyde emissions” … so that “exposure from the desk is likely to be fine.”

At the time, an agency federal regulation limiting formaldehyde emissions had been put on hold by the Trump administration, Politico noted. In addition, a troubling draft EPA report on the risks of the chemical that was completed during the Obama administration has yet to be released by the EPA.

Pruitt, who resigned early this month amid several ethics investigations, was asked about the formaldehyde report during a Senate hearing back in January. “It’s my understanding that the EPA has finalized its conclusion that formaldehyde causes leukemia and other cancers,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told Pruitt then.

The EPA chief responded: “You know, my understanding is similar to yours.”

“The irony would be comical if not so dangerous,” Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in a statement.

The EPA has been lobbied hard by the chemical industry to delay the report. A key member of the the American Chemistry Council lobby group — Kimberly Wise White — now sits on the EPA’s Science Advisory Panel even as she maintains her role in the lobbying organization. A former member of the group, Nancy Beck, is now a top deputy shaping the EPA’s policies on hazardous chemicals.

Politico reported that Pruitt aides, including chief of staff Ryan Jackson, blocked the report from going through an internal review, effectively stalling it and keeping it secret.

Markey and two other senators sent a letter to Pruitt in May expressing concern that “political appointees” were dragging their feet on releasing the assessment as the agency was being pressured by corporations with links to people inside the EPA.

EPA officials have denied suppressing the draft or keeping Americans in the dark about the risks they face, and are continuing to “discuss” the draft report with “our partners.”

Formaldehyde is one of the most commonly used chemicals in the nation. It’s utilized in wood composites in furniture and cabinets, as well as in cleaning products and cosmetics, and is spewed into the air by oil refineries. Formaldehyde can be inhaled as a gas or vapor or it can be absorbed through the skin in liquid form, according to the National Cancer Institute. The federal Centers for Disease Control says that formaldehyde is “known to cause cancer.”

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