White House Forced EPA to Reject Scientific Findings Linking Chemical to Fetal Heart Defects

On February 28, 2020, Reveal News published an article detailing how the White House had forced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reject scientific findings linking the solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, to fetal heart defects. 

In 2016, the EPA began a new evaluation of the risks of TCE. Established research had concluded that low levels of the chemical cause cardiac defects in rat offspring and these levels had previously been used by the EPA as a benchmark for unsafe levels of TCE exposure.

In December 2019, the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention completed a preliminary draft of its risk evaluation for TCE. In this draft, EPA established heart defects as the baseline for determining unsafe TCE exposure levels, consistent with the majority of research and with past agency positions. The draft was then sent to the White House and other federal agencies for review. According to government scientists who spoke to Reveal, EPA scientists were then directed to substantially rewrite their evaluation and discard the science on TCE’s role in fetal heart defects. The scientists stated that the instructions came from the Executive Office of the President and often arrived by email as unsigned attachments. Coincidentally, Nancy Beck, chief of the EPA’s chemicals office and a longtime senior lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, was detailed to this office in June 2019. The instructions apparently demanded that the EPA swap out fetal heart deformities for a less sensitive benchmark.

In February 2020, the official evaluation was released. In keeping with the White House’s requests, it dismissed decades of scientific research and rejected fetal heart malformations as a benchmark of unsafe exposure to TCE. Instead it used TCE’s role in suppressing immune function and causing autoimmune illnesses as the baseline, a limit 500 times higher than the exposure found to trigger heart defects in rats. The regulatory implications of that change could be huge, impacting proposals to ban or limit TCE and potentially eroding any existing EPA recommendations based on the heart defect science. (However, it should be noted that the published TCE evaluation still found that the chemical poses unreasonable risks in dozens of common uses by businesses and consumers alike.)

The government scientists who spoke to Reveal stated that they had never seen such “heavy-handed” interference by the White House in chemical safety. They also claimed that the White House had barred the EPA from releasing the draft for peer review and public comment until it deleted fetal heart risk as the exposure benchmark. The EPA and the White House declined to respond to Reveal’s requests for comment.


On January 15, 2021 the EPA withdrew a proposed ban on TCE.