ABC11 Investigates

I-Team: Government waste you pay for

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pretty Govindji is a Wake County mom who's concerned about the products she buys for her family.

"I'd like to know exactly what's in food. I'd like to know what's in products," she explained.

But in some cases, she may never find out, because government scientists say their research studies often are not released to the public.

"If there was a study done on a chemical and its presence in toys, bottles, spoon - any of those products that my kids are going to interact with in any way - I want to know so I can make the effective decision whether it is appropriate for my family," said Govindji.

Bill Hirzy tipped off the I-Team about some of the studies he did as a government scientist - like studies on toxic carpeting, pesticides, and chemicals in tap water - that he says were swept under the rug.

"This is a perpetual problem," said Hirzy. "And it doesn't make all that much difference who is in the White House."

Hirzy is now a chemistry professor at American University in Washington. He retired in 2008 after 28 years as a senior Environmental Protection Agency scientist in Washington.

"I think that the taxpayers could be getting more for their money if we didn't have as much outside influence," he offered.

At the EPA, Hirzy helped form a union to fight back against what he considered management interference.

"The impact is that we are not breathing air as clean as it should be and as it could be. We are drinking water that is not as pure as it could be and as it should be," he explained.

It's not just air and water. Government agencies conduct research on the food we eat, the medicine we take, and the chemicals that enter our homes. 

Francesca Grifo is the senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. She spoke with ABC11 about the concerns raised by Hirzy.

"I'm a mom. I care about my kids. I care about their safety," she said. "It frightens me to think that, in fact, the best information isn't coming into play in making many, many decisions."

Grifo said the allegations raised by Hirzy are familiar to her.

"Every phone call that I get from a whistleblower is, you know, deeply disturbing," she said. "People being kicked out of meetings, people being told to be quiet, people having their work, you know, put on a shelf in draft form and never published, never to see the light of day."

She said that - over the years - she's received many whistleblower calls from EPA researchers in Research Triangle Park.

"I have heard some really scary things. I mean, I have heard from scientists who felt intimidated, who even felt threatened by supervisors because they wanted to get information out to the public," she said.

UCS conducts surveys of federal scientists. A 2010 report called Voices of Federal Food Safety Scientists and Inspectors found 38 percent of respondents "agreed or strongly agreed that public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests."

A 2008 report - Voices of Scientists at the EPA - found "60 percent of respondents personally experienced one type of political interference during the past five years."

At EPA headquarters in Washington, management did not want to sit down and talk about the issue with ABC11. Instead, they sent us a statement saying:

"Science is the backbone of the EPA's decision-making and a culture of scientific integrity is vital to the Agency's mission. The agency has implemented a Scientific Integrity Policy to ensure scientific integrity throughout the EPA."

So what would it take to get the information out of the shadows?  The people we spoke to said it'll take action on Capitol Hill - by the people we send to Congress.           

Senator Richard Burr is a Republican - and a former businessman - who believes government regulation should not stifle business.

"I have a responsibility to the American people, and to the people of North Carolina, to not use one single source to form my opinions of, to meet with all, all interested parties that have a contribution to make," he explained.

And the scientists who feel their work has been stifled?

"From a standpoint of scientists who feel that they might not have the freedom to go out and release their conclusions, that's a direct breakdown of the agencies that formulated these advisory panels," said Senator Burr.

Grifo told us she thinks we need to keep an eye on political influence in Washington.

"We live in a very political world," she said. "And I think in some ways it is quite frightening, frightening because a lot of it we just don't even know exists."

And moms like Govindji say they believe - as taxpayers - we need to get what we pay for from government scientists and get their research into the open.

"I think the power of knowledge is the most powerful thing you can give to a mom," she said.

 The Union of Concerned Scientists says it believes a new whistleblower law will protect government scientists from interference, and they believe the Obama administration is working toward correcting the problem. But, they say the culture is deeply embedded in federal agencies and change will take time.

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