Democratic senators on Tuesday grilled a Trump administration nominee about her role in blocking and weakening regulations on toxic chemicals, including compounds known as PFAS that have contaminated water supplies around Fairchild Air Force Base.
The hearing came on the heels of a federal study
that found PFAS blood concentrations far exceeding national averages among West Plains residents. Over the course of decades, the chemicals seeped into groundwater from Fairchild, where they were used as ingredients in a fire retardant foam. The chemicals have been linked to cancers, thyroid disease, birth defects and immune system disorders, among other health problems.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, led Tuesday’s questioning of Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry lobbyist who has been nominated to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Beck holds a doctorate in environmental health from the University of Washington. Her career has included a stint as a toxicologist at the Washington state Department of Health and five years as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, a powerful lobbying arm of the chemical industry.
She’s been involved in efforts to block or weaken regulations on harmful substances including asbestos, lead paint and trichloroethylene, or TCE, which was discovered at many locations at Fairchild in the late 1980s. TCE, which is linked with neurological defects, had been used in industrial solvents to strip grease from plane parts and other machinery.
In 2017, Beck was appointed as a top official in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. There, she pushed the EPA’s Office of Water to rewrite a rule on one type of PFAS
– perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA – which would have made it harder to track health consequences of the chemical and regulate its presence in drinking water.
Most recently, Beck was on detail for the White House with the Office of Management and Budget, coordinating reviews of stimulus measures related to the coronavirus pandemic.
from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help communities reopen during the pandemic.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Beck said her career has been driven by a “commitment to public health.” But Cantwell and other senators said Beck’s record in the public and private sectors disqualifies her from serving as the nation’s top consumer watchdog.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates thousands of products for infants and children, including toys, strollers and cribs, as well as things like cigarette lighters, lawn mowers, refrigerators and trampolines.
“The agency is literally the last line of defense against defects and toxic hazards in consumer products that can kill and cause serious injuries,” Cantwell said. “Unfortunately, Dr. Beck’s record is clear. She has repeatedly sided with an industry to represent the American Chemistry Council over the safety of American families.”
Cantwell asked Beck about White House directions for the EPA to remove cardiac birth defects from a list of health problems associated with TCE, the degreasing agent. Beck refused to say whether she advocated for that change, telling Cantwell “the interagency process is designed to protect deliberative information.”
Cantwell then asked Beck whether she had been involved when the White House asked the EPA to roll back an Obama-era rule and give companies a “safe harbor” from enforcement on PFAS limits.
“Senator, I can assure you that I did not weaken or delay any PFAS rules,” Beck replied. She said the rule change had been included in a “draft document” released by the EPA and suggested she had no control over the outcome.
PFAS compounds have been used for decades in fire retardant and a variety of consumer products, including food packaging, nonstick cookware and stain repellents.
Two of the most prevalent PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, were phased out of use in the United States in the mid-2000s, but experts say similar replacement chemicals, including one called GenX, may be just as hazardous.
PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they degrade extremely slowly in the environment and in people’s bloodstreams.
Early last year, the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry launched studies at Fairchild and seven other current and former military installations to measure residents’ exposure to PFAS. The agencies recently released some findings of their Fairchild assessment, which Cantwell called “unacceptable.”
According to the CDC, 333 West Plains residents submitted blood samples. Those included 286 adults and 47 children, and together they represented 168 households in the area surrounding the air base.
Nearly all participants had blood concentrations of PFHxS, PFOS and PFOA that were higher than the national averages found in a previous study from 2016. West Plains residents were found to have more than 60 times as much PFHxS, more than nine times as much PFOS and more than six times as much PFOA in their blood than the average America.
Some scientists say no level of exposure to PFAS can be considered safe.
Due to the discovery of PFAS in its tap system, the city of Airway Heights now pipes in clean water from Spokane, and some West Plains residents had to install special filters on their wells. The EPA has been criticized for not setting an enforceable limit for PFAS in drinking water.
In a joint letter to the Senate committee, John Wiesman, secretary of the Washington state Department of Health, and Laura Watson, director of the state Department of Ecology, said they have “grave concerns” about Beck’s nomination due to her involvement in curbing regulations on PFAS and other substances.
“Dr. Beck is grossly unfit to chair the CPSC,” they wrote, “after having worked inside and outside of government to roll back regulations aimed at protecting people from the serious risk of toxic chemicals.”
Cantwell also presented a letter from Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who wrote that firefighters want to phase out the use of PFAS-containing fire retardant nationwide.
As chairwoman of the CPSC, Beck “would be poised to undermine the significant progress states have made to ban flame retardants” containing PFAS, Schaitberger wrote.
A decision on Beck’s appointment is expected sometime after the end of June.
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