White House, CDC feuding over PFAS health study, causing delays, sources say
By Kyle Bagentose | USA Today Network | November 29, 2019
Read full article by Kyle Bagentose (USA Today Network)
“A multimillion dollar federal study on toxic chemicals in drinking water across the country is facing delays due to a dispute within the Trump administration, according to several sources involved in the study or who have knowledge of the process.
The dispute has implications for more than half a dozen communities where drinking water has been heavily contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Concerns about the chemicals have exploded nationally in recent years, following decades of PFAS use in products including non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, food packaging, carpets and military firefighting foams. Scientists say significant delays could limit the effectiveness of the study…
With public concern rising, congressional lawmakers in 2018 appropriated $10 million for a nationwide study to offer more definitive answers about health effects. The money was budgeted for the Department of Defense, which is also facing at least $2 billion in PFAS cleanup liabilities. The money then flowed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This summer, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the CDC, announced that it would use the funds to study highly exposed communities in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The design of the study shops out the actual research to academic or government partners in each state and provides grant funding to conduct the work.
But the study is off to a slow start, with a dispute between the CDC and White House Office of Management and Budget playing a role, sources say.
The issue was first referenced publicly on Tuesday by Robert Laumbach, an environmental health researcher at Rutgers University, during a press conference held by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey. Laumbach is the lead investigator for the New Jersey portion of the study, which will focus on PFAS-impacted communities in Gloucester County, near Philadelphia.
‘Unfortunately, the study is being held up by the Office of Management and Budget, with no clear timeline for approval,’ Laumbach said…
Asked about the study, the CDC in an email offered no indication anything is amiss, adding the agency is ‘in the process of finalizing’ the study design so it can be sent to OMB.
‘This is a normal process that all federal agencies go through,’ the CDC wrote. ‘We expect to send the protocol to OMB for review in early 2020.’
The CDC said state partners in the national study have already begun some level of work and are developing strategies to recruit participants, collect data and further involve the public…
Despite the CDC’s assurances, other sources familiar with the review process said they are aware of friction.
Linda Birnbaum, who recently retired as director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said she heard about delays from former federal colleagues.
‘I’ve heard others speak about frustration, that it’s being held up at OMB,’ Birnbaum said. ‘And I know the CDC and (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) are pushing back on that.’
Given the study’s size — the CDC has said it aims to study 6,000 adults and 2,000 children across the seven states, by looking for unusual correlations between PFAS blood levels and medical issues — an OMB review is required.
But Birnbaum said the review process itself can cause delays even without formal disputes. It also creates a dynamic where only a few on-staff scientists at the White House are tasked with reviewing a study developed by numerous counterparts in other agencies. In this case, the draft study was also already peer-reviewed by a trio of independent scientists…
Laumbach said his understanding is that an OMB review can take a year or more, a timeline that Birnbaum also said is possible.
The original funding of the PFAS health study was hailed as a bipartisan victory in Congress. Key senators this week offered continuing support. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, ‘has reached out to OMB regarding this matter,’ his office said.
Sens. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, and Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, said communities that face PFAS contamination deserve to know the results of the study as soon as possible.
‘In this administration, OMB has consistently been the quicksand into which all rules designed to protect health and the environment sink,’ Carper said. ‘This executive branch agency moves with the utmost haste when it comes to deregulation, but when it comes to basic protections for public health, time and again, OMB creates a standstill.’
Those familiar with the process say an OMB review already led to some delay for the Pease pilot study. Meeting minutes from the CDC show researchers originally hoped to start the project last summer but were unsure how quickly OMB would move.
An official in February offered a conservative estimate that blood draws would begin in August. But the project wasn’t approved by OMB until that month, and the CDC didn’t begin recruiting study participants until October.
‘There definitely have been delays in the OMB process,’ said Mindi Messmer, a former New Hampshire state representative. ‘We’re happy that it’s getting started’…”
This content provided by the PFAS Project.