EPA accused of ‘egregious’ misconduct in PFAS testing of pesticides: Watchdog group reveals disturbing findings

The claims have raised significant concerns about the integrity of the EPA's testing and its commitment to public health.

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Allegations of serious misconduct have been leveled against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by a watchdog group and a former EPA research fellow. Documents obtained from the EPA suggest that the agency may have presented false information to the public regarding the presence of harmful contaminants, specifically per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), in pesticides. The claims have raised significant concerns about the integrity of the EPA’s testing and its commitment to public health.

Almost a year after the EPA issued a press release in May 2023 stating that no PFAS were found in samples of certain insecticides, new information has come to light that contradicts these claims. The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and former EPA research fellow Steven Lasee have alleged that the EPA’s public statements do not align with its internal findings.

PEER’s director of scientific policy, Kyla Bennett, disclosed that the organization obtained pesticide product testing data from the EPA through a Freedom of Information Act (Foia) request. The documents revealed that the EPA had indeed detected PFAS in the tested products, directly contradicting the agency’s public denial. “It’s pretty outrageous,” Bennett remarked. “You don’t get to just ignore the stuff that doesn’t support your hypothesis. That is not science. That is corruption.”

The allegations of misconduct are severe. PEER accuses the EPA of ignoring data that did not support its desired outcomes and suggests that the agency might have been under pressure from pesticide companies. Steven Lasee, an environmental toxicologist and the author of a 2022 study that identified PFAS in pesticides, supports these claims. Lasee, who served as a research fellow in the EPA’s office of research and development, reported finding PFAS in six out of ten insecticides used in cotton fields and other crops.

Lasee’s study, published in November 2022 in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters, found perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), a particularly harmful type of PFAS, in the insecticides. The EPA responded six months later, stating that its own tests, which used the same products, did not detect PFOS or any of 28 other PFAS. The agency claimed its equipment and methodology were superior to those used by Lasee.

In light of the new information, PEER has demanded that the EPA correct its public statement and retract its research memo. The organization alleges that the EPA engaged in “egregious” misconduct and deviated from accepted scientific and ethical practices. “The agency provided misinformation to a national audience and intentionally damaged Dr. Lasee,” the PEER complaint states.

The EPA has declined to comment on the allegations, citing a pending formal complaint process. However, in past statements, the agency has portrayed itself as taking a tough stance on PFAS contamination. The EPA recently finalized drinking water limits for PFAS and classified two types of PFAS as hazardous substances. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has publicly acknowledged the severe health impacts of PFAS, stating that they “can devastate families.”

Despite these public commitments, the internal documents obtained by PEER raise serious questions about the agency’s actions. The documents indicate that while the EPA publicly disclosed the results of two tests on pesticide samples, it had actually conducted four tests. One of these undisclosed tests found evidence of PFOS and other PFAS, contradicting the agency’s public claims.

One significant concern highlighted by Lasee and PEER is the absence of the “matrix spike” in the EPA’s reported results. A matrix spike, which involves adding a known quantity of a substance to a sample to test the accuracy of an analytical method, was used by Lasee but not detected by the EPA. This omission raises doubts about the validity of the EPA’s testing methods.

PEER’s complaint also points to numerous other flaws and deviations from scientific norms in the EPA’s analyses. These include the failure to report positive findings of PFAS in pesticides and potential pressure from industry stakeholders.

PFAS chemicals have been used in various industries since the 1940s for applications ranging from electronics manufacturing to non-stick cookware. Certain types of PFAS have been linked to serious health issues, including cancer, immune system damage, birth defects, and developmental delays in children. The controversy over PFAS contamination in pesticides is part of a broader public health and environmental debate, emphasizing the need for accurate testing and transparent reporting.

Kyla Bennett of PEER underscored the gravity of the situation: “When you cherrypick data, you can make it say whatever you want it to say.” Steven Lasee expressed his disillusionment with the agency, stating that the EPA’s actions have caused him to doubt its credibility. “I can only think that they were getting pressure from pesticide companies,” Lasee said.

“The presence of PFAS in pesticides points to an appalling regulatory breakdown by EPA,” PEER stated in its complaint. 

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Ruth Milka started as an intern for NationofChange in 2015. Known for her thoughtful and thorough approach, Ruth is committed to shedding light on the intersection of environmental issues and their impact on human communities. Her reporting consistently highlights the urgency of environmental challenges while emphasizing the human stories at the heart of these issues. Ruth’s work is driven by a passion for truth and a dedication to informing the public about critical global matters concerning the environment and human rights.

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