Last winter, as the coronavirus pandemic commanded attention, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality more than doubled the amount of exposure it considers safe to ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical.
Since at least 2016, though, the Environmental Protection Agency has had "'strong evidence' that exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of breast cancer, lymphoma and leukemia," reports Grist's Naveena Sadasivam. And that risk is potentially even greater in Texas and Louisiana, where nearly half of the plants that emit ethylene oxide in the entire country are located, often in communities of color and low wealth, contributing to the states' histories of environmental racism.
Why did TCEQ substantially weaken protections for this chemical?
The agency isn't saying.
But an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club to obtain and make public documents and correspondence between the agency's chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, academic researchers — and the chemical industry — intends to answer the question. Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health with Environmental Defense Fund, tells Sadasivam: “My assumption is that it’s something that would obviously make the agency look bad in some way or undermine Honeycutt’s reputation.”
Honeycutt's reputation, Sadasivam writes, is as TCEQ's "skeptic-in-chief," making decisions that don't appear always to align with the latest science. In 2014, he said more ozone pollution could improve health. In 2017, he was involved in a decision to block NASA from flying a pollution-monitoring plane over Texas during Hurricane Harvey because the data, if made public, could "make TCEQ look bad."
Now, "the documents" sought in the lawsuit, which include Honeycutt's emails that TCEQ has sued the state attorney general to keep confidential, writes Sadasivam, "may shed light on industry’s effort to weaken emission limits for the toxic substance nationwide, putting tens of thousands of people in Texas ... at a higher risk."
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