Children’s Health Chief Put on Leave, Says EPA Seeks to ‘Cause Chaos’

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By Pat Rizzuto and Sylvia Carignan

The EPA’s children health official who was placed on administrative leave Sept. 25 told colleagues that her removal wasn’t for disciplinary reasons, according to a personal email from Ruth Etzel obtained by Bloomberg Environment.

“It looks to me like it is intended to cause chaos in the Office of Children’s Health Protection,” Etzel, who had been that agency’s director, said in the email.

Etzel, a pediatrician, joined the agency in 2015. Her office, which is part of the administrator’s office, works to ensure EPA’s actions and programs address children’s vulnerabilities.

She said in the email she was required to turn in her EPA badge, computer, keys, and cellphone.

The agency doesn’t comment on personnel matters, Donna Vizian, principal deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Administration of Resources Management, told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

But John Konkus, a spokesman for the agency, emphasized that children’s health is important.

“Children’s health is and has always been a top priority for the Trump administration and the EPA in particular is focused on reducing lead exposure in schools, providing funds for a cleaner school bus fleet, and cleaning up toxic sites so that children have safe environments to learn and play,” Konkus told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

‘Guerrilla Warfare’

Etzel said in the email that her removal comes before Children’s Health Month begins in October and a Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee meeting is scheduled for Oct. 11 and 12.

“It had been apparent for about 5 months that the top EPA leaders were conducting ‘guerrilla warfare’ against me as the leader of OCHP, but now it’s clearly official,” Etzel said in the email.

The EPA hadn’t notified the advisory committee as of Sept. 26 regarding Etzel’s removal, the reasons, or whether any other actions are pending related to the children’s office, Barbara Morrissey, who chairs that advisory committee, told Bloomberg Environment.

Morrissey and several other officials in the children’s health community condemned the EPA’s move.

“This action removes her from EPA deliberations in finalizing the long awaited federal strategy to reduce lead exposure and lead impacts among our nation’s children,” said Morrissey, a toxicologist with the Washington State Department of Health.

It also weakens the ability of the children’s office to protect children in the agency’s regulations, health research, and outreach, she said by email.

‘Dismantle’ Office?

The EPA’s decision is “the opening gambit in a plan by this administration to dismantle EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection,” Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician focused on environmental health and a professor at Boston College, told Bloomberg Environment.

Federal employees can’t be fired for policy differences, only for clear “disciplinary” violations such as mismanaging funds, Bob Sonawane, a former risk assessor at EPA, told Bloomberg Environment.

Because Etzel said this was not a disciplinary action, there is no apparent explanation, but the effect will be to disrupt the office’s work, said Sonawane, who now works with Toxicology and Risk Assessment Consulting Services LLC.

Betsy Southerland, a former senior scientist in the EPA’s Office of Water, also told Bloomberg Environment that the move risks diminishing the importance of children’s health.

“The Children’s Office was very effective in ensuring that children’s health effects were explicitly considered in every agency action,” said Southerland, who now works with the Environmental Protection Network, a group of former EPA staffers who are concerned about efforts to undermine clean air, water, land and climate protection. “Putting the director on leave means that office will have much less influence on agency actions and much less ability to raise controversies to the administrator.”

Etzel is a pediatrician and specialist in preventive medicine and public health. She is the founding editor of the popular book “Pediatric Environmental Health” and the co-editor of the “Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health.”

—With assistance from Fatima Hussein.

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