A longtime Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist calls Michael Honeycutt's weakening of TCEQ's standard on ethylene oxide "completely unreasonable."

How TCEQ made a cancer-causing chemical seem safer than it is

January 16th, 2020

A longtime Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist calls Michael Honeycutt's weakening of TCEQ's standard on ethylene oxide "completely unreasonable."

  • By Allyn West

In 2018, Michael Honeycutt weakened the way Texas assesses ethylene oxide, a chemical known to cause cancer, proposing that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency where he has been chief toxicologist since 1996, adopt a threshold 50 times less protective of our health.

Why? This weakened assessment, a devastating new investigation by The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner shows, appears to come, at least in part, from the very industry that is polluting Texas with ethylene oxide.

“Texas has done something completely unreasonable” by making the chemical appear safer than it is, a longtime Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist tells Lerner.

Before issuing the weakened assessment, Honeycutt and TCEQ met with the chemical industry, including a senior director with the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for chemical manufacturers and has made nearly $80 million in political donations since 2008, and Dow Chemical, the largest manufacturer of ethylene oxide in the U.S., which operates a massive plant in Freeport.

Industry had offered to draft the assessment for TCEQ, emails show. In the end, TCEQ took recommendations and altered its own assessment from 2016, when the EPA concluded that ethylene oxide, a gas used to sterilize medical equipment and make plastic, could be as many as 30 times more carcinogenic than once known, causing “elevated rates of tumors in the brain, lungs, uterus and lymph systems.”

“The result of this collaboration,” Lerner writes, “was a proposed standard that was 3,500 times weaker.”

Since 1996, Honeycutt has developed a reputation for attacking science that could lead to tighter chemical regulations and stronger protections of health. In 2014, for example, he said about ozone pollution, which aggravates asthma and lung and heart disease, “I haven’t seen the data that says lowering ozone will produce a health benefit. In fact, I’ve seen data that shows it might have a negative health benefit.”

Now, as a member of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board under President Trump, Honeycutt’s weakening on ethylene oxide joins a broad front of attacks. Trump’s EPA, headed by a former coal lobbyist and run by others from polluting industries, seems intent on throwing away meticulous science and undoing standards — from vehicle emissions to methane to the Chemical Safety Rule, established in 2014 to prevent the kinds of explosions that happened in Port Neches the day before Thanksgiving — designed to protect us.

“The erosion of these protections,” Lerner writes, “may leave Americans at greater risk of all kinds of health effects, including fertility issues, birth defects and neurodevelopmental problems — all of which have been linked to chemical exposure.”

More chemicals are being produced than ever before. In Texas, at least 27 facilities emit more than 48 tons of ethylene oxide every year. This is pollution that will disproportionately impact communities of color and lower wealth and children. That can be seen in Freeport, where Clarence Thompson was contracted to work at the Dow plant for 25 years. Thompson says he was exposed to many carcinogens there, including ethylene oxide.

Now, he has cancer.

“These days,” Lerner writes, “he can barely walk.”

You can read “The War on the War on Cancer” in full here.

West is a senior communications specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @allynwest.

Take Action

  1. Add your name to our petition to #CleanUpTCEQ
  2. Read our post about TCEQ's recent questionable decisions
  3. Share our summary of the EPA's investigation of TCEQ's air monitoring during Hurricane Harvey

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