WASHINGTON— Scientists in the Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide office were instructed to refrain from emailing about their growing concerns about the safety of flea collars linked to thousands of pet deaths, according to statements in emails released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents, which were released in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, include emails detailing the escalating frustrations among EPA career scientists over the agency’s years of inaction on Seresto flea collars.
In the nearly 10 years since the EPA approved the Seresto collars, the agency has received more than 86,000 reports of harm to pets, including 2,340 deaths. But the EPA has not taken steps to rein in the collars’ use or warn the public of their potential dangers.
“The allegation that staff scientists are being muzzled is disturbing,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center. “The EPA can’t ensure the safety of Seresto or any other pesticide products if scientists are discouraged from candidly sharing their concerns. These emails raise worrying questions about the agency’s transparency and scientific integrity.”
During one email exchange, an EPA scientist stated he believed Seresto should be removed from the market and not used on endangered San Joaquin kit foxes. In that same email exchange, the scientist divulged that he and a colleague had previously been instructed by a manager, at the behest of another manager, “not to express our concerns about Seresto in emails.”
The manager did not deny the allegation but suggested that instead of emailing they should have a conversation about the matter.
In a separate email response to the inquiry on the endangered foxes, a different EPA career scientist replied to his colleagues asking about how to proceed: “It depends if you want the real answer or just some talking points to cover our ass for doing nothing.”
In other email discussions, another EPA employee lamented: “The faucet won't turn off! Another Seresto complaint. I hope this all leads to EPA removing this product and any like it! (hey I can dream, right?)”
A fourth employee wrote of feeling like “bashing my head against a wall” after the EPA ignored an Inspector General report identifying the need to modernize the EPA’s incident database. And in regard to Seresto, the employee stated: “I hope this time someone can blow the lid off this travesty.”
A fifth EPA employee tasked with investigating complaints about Seresto divulged to another staff member that they were getting copied on responses from scientists regarding Seresto and “how they have been ignored for years.”
Records also show that career scientists tasked with responding to the thousands of complaints about the flea collars’ safety were instructed to merely provide pet owners with a pro forma note urging them to follow up with their veterinarian about their concerns, according to the emails. The agency offered that same advice to pet owners who reported that their pets had died after being outfitted with the collars.
"The heartbreaking tragedy is that behind each and every incident report is a story of very real pet suffering, from violent seizures, rashes and hair loss to gastrointestinal problems and even deaths,” said Burd. “You’d think the EPA would spring to action in response to these troubling reports. But these emails tell the story of an agency focused more on saving face than saving animals.”
The recently released documents, highlighted in an Investigate Midwest story, come on the heels of a USA Today investigation last March exposing that the EPA has known about the high number of Seresto incidents for years but failed to take any corrective steps.
To date the EPA has taken no action to inform the public about the pet collars’ links to harm and fatalities. Rather than working with people reporting illnesses and deaths among pets wearing the collars, the pesticide office has been working closely with the collars’ maker on navigating the troubling reports.
In the lawsuit that forced the EPA to release of the Seresto records, the Center was represented by in-house counsel and Dan Snyder with the Law Offices of Charlie Tebbutt, a public-interest environmental law firm.