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Jennifer Jinot didn’t expect to retire early from her role as an environmental health scientist for the federal government. She’d spent 26 years assessing the dangers of toxic chemicals for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The job could be frustrating but, more than that, rewarding.
Early in her career, Jinot evaluated the health impacts of secondhand smoke exposure. It took four years — a pace she remembers thinking was “crazy slow” — to develop a final risk assessment, published in 1993, that determined secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in adults and impairs the respiratory systems of children. The tobacco industry sued the agency. But, in the end, her work spurred changes to the law. The victory was invigorating for Jinot, who had long dreamed of doing what she calls “socially useful” science.
In 2002, Jinot joined an EPA team that was evaluating new research to determine whether ethylene oxide, one of the world’s most widely used chemicals, caused cancer. A key building block for an endless array of consumer goods and a common product used for sterilizing medical equipment, the colorless, low-odor gas wafts out of at least 160 facilities across America. Jinot’s colleagues had already spent four years reading studies, scrutinizing data and consulting with experts. She was hopeful it wouldn’t take much longer. The team published a draft assessment in 2006 that found the chemical was significantly more carcinogenic than the agency had previously concluded and especially damaging to children.
Jinot believed the science begged for urgent action to strengthen existing environmental regulations. But industry lobbyists and company executives attacked the draft. Audry E. Eldridge, then-president of the Missouri-based Midwest Sterilization Corporation, argued in a 2006 letter that an “extensive database of toxicological and epidemiological studies” showed the EPA’s findings were flawed. Eldridge, who helped found the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of sterilizer companies, didn’t name any specific studies, but said in the letter that the cancer risk posed by the chemical was “thousands of times less than portrayed in EPA’s risk estimates.”
Amid pressure from industry groups, the agency agreed to another round of scrutiny from independent scientists and the public before finalizing its findings. “They don’t want to put out anything that gets attacked,” Jinot said of the EPA in a recent interview. The EPA defended its process for evaluating harmful environmental chemicals as “strong” in a statement to ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.
A process that, according to a director for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, should last no more than four years ended up taking another decade. In 2016, the EPA published the final version of its assessment. It concluded that ethylene oxide was 30 times more carcinogenic to people who continuously inhale it as adults and 50 times more carcinogenic to those who are exposed since birth than the agency previously thought. The chemical, which alters DNA in the human body and increases the risk of certain types of cancer such as leukemia, is particularly harmful to children …….