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Feb 29, 2020

The tell-tale hearts

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Unborn babies’ hearts are at risk as the Trump administration bows to chemical companies’ 20-year effort to debunk the science linking the dangerous chemical TCE to fetal heart defects. 

Chris Orris was born at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when the drinking water was heavily contaminated with TCE. He had open heart surgery for a defect. University of Arizona scientist Ray Runyan inspects chicken heart muscles exposed to TCE. Chemistry companies have been trying for 20 years to get the Environmental Protection Agency to reject experiments like this that show TCE can deform hearts. Under President Donald Trump, former executives of chemical company trade groups are calling the shots on toxic chemicals at the EPA and White House.

The drinking water at Camp Lejeune was cleaned up in the 1980s, but TCE vapors crept into a barracks there that houses female Marines. TCE contamination puts people in every state at risk at nearly 800 other toxic Superfund sites. To avoid liability and cleanup costs, the Pentagon has proposed its own less protective TCE standard.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: EPA scientists found a toxic chemical damages fetal hearts. The Trump White House rewrote their assessment.

Credits

This week’s show was produced by Elizabeth Shogren and edited by Deb George and Kevin Sullivan. It was reported by Elizabeth Shogren and Melissa Lewis. Additional editorial support from Michael Montgomery.

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Najib Aminy and Amy Mostafa. Hosted by Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

elizabeth shogr...:

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elizabeth shogr...:

Wrongful Conviction, False Confessions is a powerful series that tells the story of 12 false confessions using audio from inside the interrogation room and diving deep into the disturbing techniques used to extract confessions from innocent suspects. Hosted by Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin, central figures in the smash global hit Netflix docuseries making a murderer. The Wrongful Conviction False Confessions podcast asks and answers the question, why would an innocent person confess to a crime he didn't commit? Search for Wrongful Conviction podcasts in your podcast app of choice and listen today

al letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. The night, the House of Representatives impeached president Trump. He was at a campaign speech in Battle Creek, Michigan talking about...

Trump:

Sinks, showers and toilets.

al letson:

Yeah, toilets and light bulbs.

Trump:

We're even bringing back the old light bulb, you heard about that, right? The old light bulb which is better. I say, why do I always look so orange? You know why? Because of the new light, they're terrible. You look terrible.

al letson:

So what do light bulbs and toilets have in common? Well, they've both been regulated. The president thinks they've been over-regulated.

Trump:

In a period of two and a half years, we have eliminated more regulations than any other president by far.

al letson:

The New York Times counted and found that the president has rolled back nearly 100 regulations that protect the environment and people's health. It's a part of a pattern where the administration ignores what scientists tell them and instead makes things easier for special interests like the oil industry. The most recent example came within the last couple of weeks.

elizabeth shogr...:

The EPA published this enormous document, more than 700 pages long, a draft evaluation of the risks that people face from a toxic chemical called trichloroethylene or TCE.

al letson:

Thus reveals environmental reporter Elizabeth Shogren.

elizabeth shogr...:

Most people have probably never heard of TCE, but it's a very widely used chemical. It's used to take grease off of stuff. You can find it in manufacturing, in car repair shops, at military sites and dry cleaners across the country use it to remove spots from clothes.

al letson:

So it's really useful chemical, but it's also really dangerous.

elizabeth shogr...:

Yeah, it can cause kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and it can harm your immune system. They've also found that if pregnant women are exposed to just tiny amounts of it, their babies can be born with heart defects.

al letson:

The government is supposed to restrict or ban chemicals that are dangerous. But for the past 20 years they've been studying the risks of TCE without doing anything about it. So this new report from the EPA is really important because it's a key step in keeping people safe. There's just one thing.

elizabeth shogr...:

It's not the original report that EPA scientists actually wrote. I found out that the white house read through the original and made the EPA rewrite it.

al letson:

The Trump administration changed the report ignoring more than 20 years of research after the chemical industry attack the science.

elizabeth shogr...:

These veteran scientists were really outraged by this interference from the White House. They say they never experienced anything like it and I was able to get a copy of their original draft.

al letson:

We're going to tell you exactly how the White House changed that report, but first we're going to go back in time to trace the history of TCE and figure out how come we've been living with it for so long and why the government's done so little to protect us. Elizabeth begins our story at a Marine base in North Carolina, early one morning.

elizabeth shogr...:

The day starts early at Camp Lejeune. Marines jog through the base carrying logs the size of tree trunks on their shoulders and they cheer each other on as they take on the obstacle course. I'm here to meet Johnny Orris and his son Chris. Johnny's a retired Marine in his 60s and Chris is 45, we drive up to a big brick building. These days it's the headquarters of one of the Marine Corps top commanders

Johnny Orris:

This used to be the Old Naval Hospital, this big complex here and this is where he was born. This is the beginning.

elizabeth shogr...:

Out front, there's a big magnolia tree. Go stand under the shady tree. Johnny remembers rushing Chris's pregnant mom here. It was a steamy day in August, 1974. By the time he parked the car and went into the hospital-

Johnny Orris:

I was tapped on the shoulder and told that I had a new baby boy. I was really, really happy about that.

elizabeth shogr...:

So this is where it all started huh Chris?

Chris:

Yeah, this is where I was born and this is only the third time I've ever been here.

elizabeth shogr...:

At the time, there were lots of young families at Camp Lejeune. The Vietnam war was winding down. Johnny and the other Marines were often gone for long periods of time, sometimes training, sometimes fighting, and while they were gone, they depended on the Marine Corps to keep their families safe.

Johnny Orris:

And the Marine Corps ethos is honor, courage and commitment that while you're gone that they take care of your family.

elizabeth shogr...:

The Orris's lived on base. We drive to their old neighborhood and they say a lot's changed here since the 1970s.

Chris:

Dad, do you remember roughly where the house would have been as you're driving down this road?

Johnny Orris:

As a matter of fact, it would have been right in here.

elizabeth shogr...:

But the homes we're looking at today are a lot bigger than the ones Johnny remembers. We get out and stand on the sidewalk. Do any memories come back to you now that we're here?

Johnny Orris:

Yeah. I was a young corporal, a noncommissioned officer, loved being a Marine. I had some good memories of living here. I had some nice friends.

elizabeth shogr...:

He used to ride motorcycles with a friend who lived across the street, but he has darker memories too. That same friend's wife had three miscarriages.

Johnny Orris:

I remember that distinctly because it was just so unusual for somebody to have that number of miscarriages.

elizabeth shogr...:

Chris says he's also heard stories of stillborn babies and young children dying of cancer.

Chris:

On the surface, this looks like a really peaceful, tranquil community. But 30 years ago, this was a horror house for many of the families that lived here.

elizabeth shogr...:

A house of horrors. Chris says his mom recently gave him a photo taken here. It shows a woman who was a close friend of his mom's. In the picture she's obviously quite pregnant.

Chris:

About seven and a half or eight months pregnant and she lost that baby about a week after I was born. And my mom said that was just something that happened all the time around here was that there were just so many women who got pregnant and lost their babies.

elizabeth shogr...:

Johnny remembers, no one had any idea what was causing these family tragedies, but one odd detail does stick out in his memory.

Johnny Orris:

They came in and they put this box into our house's and said it was to monitor something, but we just had no... We really didn't know. Nobody really asked. It was... You're young, you're not thinking about those things. We all joked that they're spying on us.

elizabeth shogr...:

And today Johnny wonders what those boxes really were about. So decades passed. It was 2011. Chris was a 36-year-old banker living in Colorado and his health started failing.

Chris:

I was rapidly deteriorating. It was getting to the point where I couldn't walk across a room without getting out of breath.

elizabeth shogr...:

That must've been terrifying.

Chris:

It was really rough. And I was a single parent, that was a very scary time for me.

elizabeth shogr...:

His doctor ordered a bunch of tests.

Chris:

I was getting weaker and weaker and weaker. And I passed out one time in the middle of my kitchen while I was cooking. And so the doctor ordered a angiogram.

elizabeth shogr...:

That's when a cardiologist injects the blood vessels of your heart with a special dye that can be seen on X-rays.

Chris:

And then the next thing you know, the doctors in the room are, "Go get so and so, have him come take a look at this." And all of a sudden there was a whole crowd of people around me. I fell asleep a little and I woke up and a doctor just looked at me and he said, "You have less than two years to live. You have a heart defect and we can't believe you're still alive. We've never seen somebody like you with this type of a defect."

elizabeth shogr...:

Two years to live, unless he has open-heart surgery. Heart defects are common, but Chris's type is rare. Usually it's only seen in young children. So a pediatric cardiologist was called in. Johnny remembers flying to Colorado to be with Chris's son.

Johnny Orris:

And when he went in to have surgery thinking that I may never see him again, I really felt overcome with emotion. I was like, "Wow, how could this have happened to my son?" And then of course after he came out of the recovery room, it was just horrible for the next few days being there and watching how he was suffering after the surgery.

Chris:

And I remember the third night after the surgery, I remember giving up, I remember saying I'm done because it just hurts so much. The pain was just incredible. And then I woke up the next day and I felt a lot better. That was a turning point. During my recovery, my doctors were so amazed at how quickly I'd recovered because soon as I hit that turning point, I started feeling something that I'd never felt before, I had all of this energy and I just felt so good. Because for the first time in my life I was getting oxygenated blood throughout my body. My body wasn't starving for oxygen like it had been my entire life.

elizabeth shogr...:

Within a month, Chris was in the gym and after two months he was back at work.

Chris:

And so for me, recovery was an amazing thing because every day I got better and better and better. And every day since that surgery has been a bonus day for me.

elizabeth shogr...:

About a year later Chris was at work and a new story about Camp Lejeune popped up on his screen.

Chris:

And so I opened it up and bold letters up there, it said toxic water contamination at Camp Lejeune, thousands of potential cancer cases and birth defects and I said, "Wait a minute, what is this?"

elizabeth shogr...:

The toxic water Chris was reading about was contaminated with TCE. For decades the base had used the chemical as a cleaner to get grease off of military equipment like missiles, helicopters and tanks, a dry cleaner on the base, a lot of dry cleaners use TCE to get spots out. Over the years, the chemical got into the ground water used for drinking and that's how people could have gotten sick. TCE has been linked to leukemia, liver and kidney cancer, immune problems, miscarriages and heart defects like the one Chris had.

Chris:

And I'd never heard anything about this and I started reading through it and they were talking contamination period of like 1960 at that time to 1986.

elizabeth shogr...:

Chris was born right in the middle of that time.

Chris:

And they're talking about heart defects.

elizabeth shogr...:

Babies born with holes in their hearts or other deformities so they can't effectively pump oxygenated blood through their bodies.

Chris:

And it was this your eureka moment. I was like, "Wait a second, this completes the puzzle. Why did I have this heart defect? Where did it come from?"

elizabeth shogr...:

Chris's well-paid banking job was putting too much stress on his renovated heart, so he moved back to North Carolina to be closer to family and married a paramedic named Lacey. She's been helping him fill in the pieces of the puzzle of Camp Lejeune's past, and not just for Chris, but for others who trace their health problems to that poisoned water at Camp Lejeune. Chris started asking lots of questions about his earliest days on earth. He shows me his baby book, inside is his birth certificate and an old clip from a local newspaper.

Chris:

This which was the announcement of my birth became the proof of my contamination.

elizabeth shogr...:

His father Johnny is devastated that his career in the military put his kid in danger.

Johnny Orris:

I've spent 30 years in the Marine Corps and I, proud to have served my country and I still consider myself a true patriot, but it makes me feel sad that they weren't honest with me up front. And then later on that my son would suffer and I almost lost him. And that is sad because again, the Marine Corps is honor, courage, commitment, that's their ethos. You expect them to take care of your family when you're off doing all the things that you've got to do.

elizabeth shogr...:

It's twilight. Chris and Lacey have brought me to a military cemetery about an hour drive from the base. It's been here since the civil war. We're looking at row after row of simple white gravestones. Many fallen Union soldiers are buried here, but mixed among them are much more recent graves. Lacey reads one of them.

Lacey:

This one just says infant October 25th, 1972 son of, then it lists the service member's name, USMC.

elizabeth shogr...:

United States Marine Corps.

Chris:

Here's a baby son of Lance Corporal with less than a year. Here's another son of corporal lived for five months.

elizabeth shogr...:

What year?

Chris:

1984.

elizabeth shogr...:

All these babies died in the 60s, 70s and 80s. That's when drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with TCE and other toxic chemicals.

Chris:

We're standing here in the graves of eight to 10 babies are within five feet of you and just half a row right here where half a dozen babies. It's astounding. There are no words for this. It's tragic. It's sad. And could you imagine the families during this time period and why didn't anybody think to ask why so many babies? What's going on in a national cemetery that we have rows of babies.

elizabeth shogr...:

According to data Reveal got from the National Cemetery Administration, military families buried 469 babies here in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Chris:

But for the grace of a God or an almighty power or luck or whatever you would call it, I could very easily be resting here. And it's a reminder of how fortunate I am, but it's also terribly sad because so many lives were cut so short and you think about how each of these children were denied a future and what kind of an impact they could have had on the rest of us. And it really makes you wonder why we don't protect our unborn children more.

elizabeth shogr...:

Decades later, there's not enough information to know whether contaminated water caused those deaths. And that box Johnny remembers on the wall of his house at Camp Lejeune. Now he wonders if it's a clue that the military knew far more about the risks than they were telling Marines.

al letson:

About the time that Chris was born, those other babies were dying. A doctor in Tucson was treating infants with deformed hearts at his clinic. He realized that many of them were coming from the same part of the city. When we come back, Elizabeth follows how that Tucson doctor helps spark a 20-year fight between scientists and the chemical industry. That's next on Reveal.

elizabeth shogr...:

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elizabeth shogr...:

Support for Reveal comes from Stanford Children's Health and the new Bass Childhood Cancer Center designed to deliver the best possible care to even more patients with cancer and blood disorders with dedicated play spaces for kids and teens. Positive pressure ventilation that keeps every room cleaner to prevent infections and physical and occupational therapy on the same floor. The center lets kids be kids to promote better recovery. Stanford Children's Health, access to excellence, learn more at stanfordchildrens.org

al letson:

Hey, Hey, Hey. It's time for Al's podcast picks. This time I want to tell you about Verified. It's a new investigative, true crime podcasts from Stitcher. Season one of Verified tells a story of a group of fearless women from around the world who band together with a team of Italian reporters to bring a police man turned sexual predator to justice, hosted by investigative reporter Natasha Del Toro. This 10 episode series examines the trust we place in the sharing economy. If you want to listen to a full season of Verified without ads, sign up for Stitcher premium and use the promo code witness for one month free, season one of verified is out now, listen and subscribe whatever you find your podcasts.

al letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We recently learned just how far the Trump administration is willing to go to help big business, even when baby's hearts are on the line. Scientists told us that the White House rewrote a report to downplay the dangers of this toxic chemical we've been telling you about, TCE. Scientists have known about the risk for decades. Some of the first warning signs go all the way back to the 1970s when Chris Orris was born at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Around the same time a cardiologist was treating babies with heart defects in Tucson. He noticed that many of the children came from the same part of the city, but he didn't know why. He got a big clue in the 1980s when TCE was found in the tap water there and around the country

Speaker 7:

On ABC News, survey has found that some wells in 34 states have been shut down because of toxic chemical called TCE has been found in the water supply. ABC's Peter Lance has been investigating

al letson:

Those wells provided tap water to the neighborhoods where the babies with heart defects were born.

Speaker 7:

Since 1981, seven public wells there have been shut down.

al letson:

Once Tucson shut down his TCE contaminated wells, that cluster of babies with heart defects disappeared. But the question remains, how does TCE affect the human body? Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren goes to Tucson where scientists have been working to understand that. Even as the chemical industry has worked to undermine their research.

elizabeth shogr...:

That's the sound of a heart beating on an ultrasound. One of those machines doctors use to let parents see their babies before they're born, but this isn't a human heart. It's from a chicken embryo. I'm looking at it with professor Ray Runyan in his lab at the University of Arizona.

Ray Runyan:

I'm trying to keep them warm because their heartbeat is [inaudible 00:23:36], as you can see they're moving around a little bit.

elizabeth shogr...:

If you've ever cracked an egg and found a yoke with some blood in it, that's kind of what this looks like. There's a dark red spot in the center with thin red lines stretching out like a web across a pool of bright yellow yolk. Each embryo floats in a glass bowl that looks like a custard cup. The bulls are covered in plastic wraps so Ray can press the ultrasound wand right up to the embryo.

Ray Runyan:

I think we had the problem sitting there right over the ventricle and so we're getting the contraction, the ventricle and it's pushing the blood through one of the valve openings.

elizabeth shogr...:

A few days ago, Ray injected these chicken eggs with watered down TCE.

Ray Runyan:

So this is a six-day chick embryo that was treated between days two and three with 10 [inaudible] TCE and then left in the incubator to go a little low, the one where we can see the heart.

elizabeth shogr...:

Ray's a professor of cellular and molecular medicine and he talks like one. I'm constantly asking him to explain and reexplain his scientific terms and experiments. He gets pretty excited by all this stuff.

Ray Runyan:

It's actually the cardiac physiology is changing and because of that the heart is malforming from the change in the flow through the heart.

elizabeth shogr...:

Here's what he means by that. If an embryo is exposed to TCE, the heart muscles might not develop properly, so blood won't pump through the heart as strongly as it should. That can cause deformities. Ray started researching TCE in the mid 1990s that's when that cardiologist who discovered the cluster of heart defects in kids walked into his lab.

Ray Runyan:

And he said, "We have this issue with TCE. Can we do something to find out what the molecular cause is?" And so we started doing some experiments.

elizabeth shogr...:

In the year 2000, Ray published his first discovery. It confirmed a link between TCE and heart problems.

Ray Runyan:

We were so proud of ourselves for seeing TCE causing an effect.

elizabeth shogr...:

It was a breakthrough. Ray had figured out one of the ways this chemical was damaging hearts at a molecular level. What Ray hadn't grasped yet was how important TCE is to the chemical industry. Today it's market size is about $350 million worldwide. That's expected to grow by $100 million by 2025 and you can find it in dry cleaners, auto repair shops, refineries and factories that make batteries or medical devices. So any limit on TCE would be a big deal for the people who make and use it. And that soon became obvious to Ray.

Ray Runyan:

And that's the first time I discovered the Halogenated Insolvence Industry Alliance because they wrote a rebuttal to our paper.

elizabeth shogr...:

A rebuttal letter is how one scientist tells the whole scientific community that they think another scientist's work is wrong. Ray had never heard of this Halogenated solvents group. He didn't even know there was such a thing. It's an interest group that lobbies for chemical manufacturers and the letter, it criticized the way Ray conducted the study and his conclusions. He'd done lots of studies before and no one had questioned his methods. He took it personally. It felt like an attack on his integrity as a scientist.

Ray Runyan:

It was sort of a new realm, that was kind of eye-opening and it slowed us down a little bit because you're going to get people coming back and asking every detailed experiments.

elizabeth shogr...:

Ray did what he does best. He went back into his lab. He and other scientists published dozens of studies about the dangers of TCE. They did experiments in lab animals that showed how it damages fetal hearts. They studied neighborhoods contaminated with it and found more human babies born with heart defects than in other communities and Ray discovered 4,000 genes that TCE alters.

Ray Runyan:

The gene changes means something when approximately a third of the genes expressed in your cells at a time are altered that there's got to be a consequence on the muscle cells as they develop, and so we're getting defects.

elizabeth shogr...:

But when Ray or another scientist published a breakthrough, the chemical industry shot back, they paid lobbyists and their own scientists to dissect the studies and undermine the research. Meanwhile, year after year, the EPA failed to enact any new restrictions on TCE and in retrospect, the industry's game plan seems obvious.

David Michaels:

This is standard operating procedure by polluters and manufacturers of dangerous product.

elizabeth shogr...:

David Michaels was the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA for President Obama. Now he's a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University. When I visit him at his Washington, D.C. office, he's fact checking his second book about how industry's stirred doubts about science.

David Michaels:

When it becomes clear that a product they make or a product that's being led off into the air or into the water is making people sick. The first thing the industry does and the trade associations especially is to hire scientists to try to show that there is uncertainty.

elizabeth shogr...:

He says chemical companies take their cue from other industries that have fought back against science for decades.

David Michaels:

They learned from the tobacco industry that all you need to do is question the studies that are being used and even if there are dozens and dozens of studies as there were with tobacco and as there are with TCE, by focusing on each individual study and saying, "Well here are the flaws in the study," and there are other studies, we're going to ignore them for other reasons, but they don't look at the overall picture.

elizabeth shogr...:

You might expect this from the chemical industry. There's a lot of money at stake, but what you might not expect is that government agencies also tried to block regulation of TCE. Weihsueh Chiu experienced this firsthand. He was working at the EPA in 2003 and leading a team of scientists. They were trying to figure out how much TCE you can safely breathe, drink, or touch. But even before they could publish their findings in what's called an assessment, their work was attacked.

Weihsueh Chiu:

The other federal agencies basically got a crack at EPA's assessment before it was released to the public, whereas previously EPA will have their autonomy as to developing a tone assessments.

elizabeth shogr...:

President George W. Bush let the Pentagon, NASA and other government agencies review that assessment and they raised a lot of concerns. Today the chemical is found at 1400 military facilities and 800 super fund sites. Any new rules to clean up TCE could cost them billions of dollars. Weihsueh who's now a toxicology professor at Texas A&M says the agencies should have stayed out of EPA's work.

Weihsueh Chiu:

Because they are an interested party. And so I feel that they have a conflict of interest.

elizabeth shogr...:

Weihsueh says the Pentagon and chemical companies slowed down his risk assessment by nearly a decade. In the meantime, many cleanups were stalled. Military workers and families who lived on in near basis like Camp Lejeune kept getting exposed to TCE. In 2011 Weihsueh assessment finally came out. It was 1200 pages long. It concluded that TCE causes cancer and tiny whiffs of it early in pregnancy can potentially deform fetal hearts. Weihsueh says there was an upside to all that delay that the industry probably hadn't intended.

Weihsueh Chiu:

Ironically, during that delay from 2002 through 2011 when we finally released it, the evidence got stronger and so it's a little bit ironic that actually it turned out stronger because of the delay.

elizabeth shogr...:

Then finally, in 2016, Congress passed a law giving EPA more power to regulate toxic chemicals. When President Obama signed it, he said it replaced a 40-year old law that had failed to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.

B. Obama:

Only five have been banned. Five and only a tiny percentage have even been reviewed for health and safety. The system was so complex, it was so burdensome that our country hasn't even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year, and I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that.

elizabeth shogr...:

Obama said, fixing this law was so urgent that Republicans and Democrats had stopped feuding and work together.

B. Obama:

For the first time in our history, we'll actually be able to regulate chemicals effectively.

elizabeth shogr...:

It's hard to overstate how ubiquitous TCE is, but this should give you an idea of its scope. EPA found that 300,000 people working at dry cleaners and tens of thousands of employees of small manufacturing shops are exposed to it. It's also found in the public water systems in 41 states and at those 1400 military sites we talked about. And after Obama signed the updated Toxic Substances Control Act, it was up to his EPA chief Gina McCarthy to decide whether to use it to restrict TCE and the clock was ticking. She got advice from the agency's top scientist, Tom Burke.

Tom Burke:

I said, well, do you know with a chemical where there's pervasive exposure and it's in the air and it's in the drinking water and it's in the indoor air, well then there's an opportunity, an important opportunity and I think a responsibility to reduce those exposures and to protect public health. That's what we do.

elizabeth shogr...:

In the final days of the Obama administration, McCarthy proposed banning TCE for some uses. For instance, it would be illegal to use it at a dry cleaners or to spray it on metal parts to remove grease, but that didn't happen.

Trump:

I will keep working with Congress, with every agency and most importantly with the American people until we eliminate every unnecessary harmful and job killing regulation that we can find. We have a lot more coming [inaudible 00:34:42].

elizabeth shogr...:

As you can hear, President Trump made his intentions known right away. The TCE bans were dropped. Former OSHA director, David Michaels says Trump hired people at the EPA who put up a welcome sign for chemical companies.

David Michaels:

There are people at the EPA in the White House who did this on the outside foreign industry before they came into the administration. So there're going to listen much more carefully. They're going to buy what the industry is out there selling.

elizabeth shogr...:

People like Nancy Beck. She testified before a congressional committee on behalf of chemical companies in March, 2017.

Nancy Beck:

I'm honored to be here today representing the American Chemistry Council. My name is Nancy Beck and I've spent over 15 years working at the intersection of science and policy.

elizabeth shogr...:

And just a few weeks later she took a new job heading up the EPA's office of chemical safety and pollution prevention for President Trump.

Nancy Beck:

I spent most of my career working at state government, federal government. Everyone knows most recently I came from the American Chemistry Council.

elizabeth shogr...:

The American chemistry council is exactly what it sounds like, an interest group for chemical companies. Before that job, Beck worked in George W. Bush's White House. A 2009 congressional investigation found that her office at the White House helped the chemical industry and the Pentagon delay Weihsueh's assessment for nearly a decade. In 2019 Beck moved from the EPA to Trump's White House. Another veteran of the American Chemistry Council replaced her. I asked for an interview with Nancy Beck and others from the Trump administration. No one would talk to me. The trade groups wouldn't talk either, but I did get an interview with someone who has been one of the biggest critics of the Fetal Heart research. His name is John [Diseso 00:36:35]. I meet him at his office in Alexandria, Virginia. His wall is covered with photos of his grandkids and his screensaver... So why do you have an embryo as your screensaver?

John. D:

I'm an embryologist and I teach embryology at Georgetown. This is really important to me. When you watch them in addition, their hearts are beating and you see the blood flowing and you can get hypnotized by it.

elizabeth shogr...:

There's another embryologist in this story. That's Ray Runyan, the scientist at the University of Arizona we heard from earlier. On the surface, Ray and John seemed to have a lot in common. They sort of look alike. They're about the same age with silver hair and medium builds, but their work couldn't be more different. Ray and his colleagues have spent the past 20 years researching TCE on behalf of universities. John, meanwhile spent those same years working for consulting firms on behalf of chemical companies, poking holes in other scientist's papers including Ray's, writing rebuttals, but never doing actual lab work until now. John recently published his first lab study on TCE and he got a chance to present it at the EPA.

Ray Runyan:

Maybe there were 15 to 20 people in the room and on the line it sounded like there were about four or five.

elizabeth shogr...:

John shows me the PowerPoint he used.

Ray Runyan:

And we made our presentation to them, talk to them about the data. They ask questions.

elizabeth shogr...:

John told them he found no increase in heart defects from TCE. I should mention that chemical trade groups funded his research and one of his coauthors works for Dow Chemical. So why was EPA interested in your research?

Ray Runyan:

I think it's because this is the first time there's been a very solid study that contradicted what was already published by the Arizona group.

elizabeth shogr...:

Your research is funded by the companies that produce this chemical and have a financial interest in it being accepted and a financial interest in not cleaning it up. So does that influence your science?

Ray Runyan:

I don't think so. The rats don't know who paid for the study. And admittedly I'm sure they funded it because I think I had a lot of reasons to believe it would not come out as a positive thing. But there's no way you're going to examine a heart. And if there a hole in the heart, you're going to say it isn't there. And he just sees is there or it isn't there. And that's objective.

elizabeth shogr...:

When Ray saw John's study in a respected science journal, he was livid. This time he wrote the rebuttal. He pointed out that John's one study couldn't refute all the data from the 20 years of research he and his colleagues had done.

Ray Runyan:

I have a hard time imagining how they can sleep at night knowing that they're trying to basically roll back the standards and expose people. And obviously big money gets in the way.

elizabeth shogr...:

It's so nice to meet you [Ornella 00:39:46].

Ornella:

Nice to meeting you Elizabeth.

elizabeth shogr...:

Ray introduces me to his colleague or Ornella Selman. She worked with him on TCE research for 10 years. John's paper really got to her too.

Ornella:

To me, it's amazing that they're just so intent to prove that the studys were wrong, they were wrong. It's a little bit too coincidental that just their study's right. Therefore, all other studies are bogus. It's not a scientific approach. I'm sorry.

Ray Runyan:

Did you see the rebuttal to our letter?

elizabeth shogr...:

Yeah.

Ornella:

My question is why should we risk exposing people, pregnant mothers and children to higher level of TCE before we are absolutely sure that TCE see does not have that effect. Who is to benefit from it? Not the general population. The only people that I see benefit from it is those industries that want to use TC and they don't want to spend money for cleaning up those sites.

al letson:

Since Elizabeth talked to Ray and Ornella, the EPA has come out with its new draft assessment on how dangerous TCE is. Thus, the report we mentioned at the top of the show and as we also said, the Trump White House took the EPA as report and basically rewrote it. We know this because Elizabeth got a copy of the original draft, and Elizabeth, you've had a chance to look at both the EPA scientists draft and the one that was rewritten at the White House's direction. What stands out?

elizabeth shogr...:

Well, it's complicated, but here's the big difference. In the draft, the scientists wrote, they calculated unsafe levels of TCE based on how it might damage a fetal heart. The new draft, the one the White House changed doesn't do that. It bases the math on how much TCE causes immune disorders and those levels are much higher, like 500 times higher. Now, Al, to give you a sense of how much this changed the report, if you take the original draft by the EPA scientists and you look for the term cardiac toxicity, you can find it more than 300 times. But if you look at that phrase in the draft that was rewritten on the direction of the White House, you don't find that term at all. It was completely eliminated. All of this matters because future regulations could be set based on these calculations. That would leave fetal hearts at risk. According to EPA's own scientists.

al letson:

If the report says that TCE is dangerous and even admits that it's been linked to fetal heart defects, then why is it such a big deal that the White House change the report?

elizabeth shogr...:

Well, the bottom line is this could open the door for the EPA to set looser restrictions on TCE in the future. That's because scientists believe it takes only an infinitesimal amount of TCE to cause fetal heart effects. It takes more TCE to cause other problems. So to give you an idea of the scale, let's say it takes seven soda cans of TCE to cause immune problems. On that scale, it would take just one teaspoon of TCE to cause fetal heart defects. So you can tell why the chemical industry would want the government to base its findings on immune problems because it could justify allowing people to use a lot more TCE and to be exposed to a lot more TCE.

al letson:

That's Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren. So far, we've been talking about how the government will regulate TCE in the future, but there's something else we have to worry about. How the government is going to protect people from all the TCE that's already contaminated communities around the country.

Speaker 16:

How many more children need to die or need to be born with a congenital heart defect before you get off your ass and start doing something. I do not believe that it is in the Marine Corps charter to poison unborn children.

al letson:

Elizabeth is back with that part of the story in a minute. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We just heard how the Trump administration listened to the chemical industry over its own EPA scientists to decide how to deal with the dangerous chemical known as TCE. The government still likely to restrict its use. We just don't know by how much or how long that will take. In the meantime, everyone from mechanics to shoe makers, printers to dry cleaners will continue to be exposed.

al letson:

And then there's all the TCE that's already out there. For decades, the chemical has been recklessly dumped in communities around the country. Right now it lurks in places we don't even know about it and some places we do like Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. It's one of 800 superfund sites that are being cleaned up and that brings us back to Chris Orris, the man who was born on the base in the 1970s. Elizabeth Shogren has the rest of his story.

elizabeth shogr...:

After surviving surgery to repair his deformed heart, Chris wanted to do something to help other people who were exposed to toxic chemicals at Camp Lejeune. So he joined a group set up by the CDC called the Community Assistance Panel or CAP for short. I got ahold of a recording of one of their meetings in Atlanta in 2018.

Speaker 17:

A CAT member asked if eight female Marines who are pregnant at HP 57 bearings were notified to make sure...

elizabeth shogr...:

The CAP member she's talking about is Chris. He's been especially worried about the risk for women on the base.

Speaker 17:

The eight female Marines were not directly contacted, the Marines...

elizabeth shogr...:

As he listens, Chris's face flushes red. He reminds everyone that even small amounts of TCE can hurt an unborn baby's heart.

Chris:

But the Marine Corps doesn't see a problem with exposing their female Marines of childbearing age to a chemical that could cause a cardiac defect in the unborn child. We're not talking about past contaminations right now. How many more children need to die or need to be born with a congenital heart defect before you get off your ass and start doing something, I do not believe that it is in the Marine Corps charter to poison unborn children. You know about it. You have known about it and you have not and still do not do anything to protect these children. This is unacceptable.

elizabeth shogr...:

So what's the military doing to protect people from TCE at Camp Lejeune? I visited the base last summer. The spokesman meets me at the gate.

Matt. F:

I'm Matt Fay. I'm the director of communications strategy and operations for Camp Lejeune.

elizabeth shogr...:

Matt introduces me to two of the militaries environmental engineers. Then he reminds me about the unusual conditions their bosses set for our interview.

Matt. F:

Ground rules here. These guys are going to be my points of reference and then I'm going to be pretty much doing the talking.

elizabeth shogr...:

So even though you're the experts, you can't be on recording.

Speaker 20:

No ma'am.

elizabeth shogr...:

That's the only thing I was allowed to play from the engineers. We'll just have to see how this goes. I've been a journalist for a long time. I've never done anything like this before.

Matt. F:

Yes. I'm not altogether certain how this works either.

elizabeth shogr...:

This turns out to be one of the weirdest interviews of my life. The Marines arranged for their engineer's to show me around the base, but they don't want me to record them. So I ask my questions. They tell their answers to Nat, who's standing right next to us, and then he more or less repeats what they say. Our first stop is a parking lot surrounded by some brick buildings.

Matt. F:

We're standing here on the site of a former dry cleaner that's set up in the 1960s and operated until 2004 and it's sits roughly between our provost marshal office headquarters and barracks roughly 200 feet away.

elizabeth shogr...:

The dry cleaner used TCE. It leaked into the groundwater directly under us and contaminated the drinking water. The military stopped using this water for drinking in the 1980s, but the toxic chemicals are still underground and eventually they find their way back up to the surface. When that happens, TCE turns into a gas which people can inhale. That puts Marines and civilians on the base at risk. So now we're looking at the barracks. It's a three-story brick building. It looks like a motel basically. This is the same barracks that Chris was so worried about because of the female Marines who live here. The engineer's say they detected TCE in and around this barracks starting in 2010 but it took four years before the military investigated to find out how those TCE vapors were getting into the building. They finally realized it was seeping in through some old plumbing.

elizabeth shogr...:

Now there's a sewer venting system near the barracks, pumping those toxic fumes out of the barracks right where I'm standing with the engineers and Nat, the Marine spokesman, it's a large silver box, like the size of four refrigerators. So as we're standing here, we can smell this very clear smell of sewer gas. It's quite disgusting. So let's move just a little bit beside, we don't need to subject ourselves to that. I've talked to a number of scientists who are experts in TCE. They've been doing experiments for years. They say that there's this point very early in pregnancy when fetuses are vulnerable to birth defects.

Speaker 20:

Fetal heart malformation.

elizabeth shogr...:

Yeah. Their hearts can be deformed. And so I'm curious, when you found the chemicals here, did you move the women Marines out? The engineers tell me no, they didn't. Even though the EPA had determined that the amount of TCE in the barracks could have caused fetal heart defects. Do you still house women Marines in this barracks?

Matt. F:

Yes.

elizabeth shogr...:

And do they face any risk, any danger from the chemicals that were found in this building?

Matt. F:

No. Right?

elizabeth shogr...:

He looks to the engineers and they tell him what to say.

Matt. F:

I'm not a doctor, so yeah.

elizabeth shogr...:

Nat doesn't have an answer. Neither do his experts. The Pentagon drafted its own guidelines on how much exposure to TCE is safe. It ignored the fetal heart research just like the White House did when it made EPA rewrite the report by its own scientists. That means people on military bases could be exposed to levels of TCE far higher than scientists say is safe for fetal hearts. 2,500 times higher. Most people on the base don't even know about the danger of TCE, including the female Marines living in those barracks. That's the kind of thing that worries Chris Orris. He fears another of babies will suffer from the same kind of heart defect that nearly killed him.

Chris:

I think one of the reasons that I have lived and that I'm here today is to make sure that somebody else doesn't lose their baby or doesn't wake up to a phone call that their child is dying because of the water here at Camp Lejeune.

al letson:

That's story from Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren. This week's show was edited by Deborah George and our executive producer Kevin Sullivan. We had additional editorial support from Esther Kaplan. Our associate producer was Najeeb Amini, Claire C-Note-Mullen mixed the show with help from Amy Mustafa, our production manager Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man Arruda. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our theme music is by Camerado/ Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism foundation. Reveal is a coproduction of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.