EPA inspector general report finds contractor manipulated air filter data

The manipulated data led to 95 air filter samples being made unusable, which affects the EPA's regulatory decisions.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) flag.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Inspector General found that a laboratory contractor with the Office of Research and Development inappropriately manipulated air filter data and failed to follow the appropriate guidance for data of 95 air filter samples, rendering them unusable. 

The EPA said the data "drives regulatory decisions, and therefore, it is crucial to accurately assess the quality of data being collected."

According to the Feb. 16 OIG report, in November 2018, the contractor "misidentified" a subset of filters that they had weighed "during either the loading process in the automated weighing system or by the manner of recording the weight of the filters after they were weighed."

Because the contractor "failed to do a timely quality assurance check after initially weighing the air filters," the initial misidentification error was not discovered until February 2019. 

After discovering the error, the contractor manipulated the data to make the results appear valid instead of notifying the EPA of the misidentification. 

An audit was conducted in May 2019 by the EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, which found that the manipulated air filter data "cannot be used due to data quality and integrity issues."

The OIG report also discovered that the contractor had failed to follow the recognized professional laboratory practice of keeping a laboratory notebook, which may have been used to correct the misidentified data sooner. 

The contractor also took several months to identify the errors, which would not have occurred if the air filter weight data had been reviewed "within 24 to 48 hours after the initial weighing of the filters," as it was supposed to. 

Moreover, the automated balance "used to weigh the air filters was not operating properly, which should have been recorded in a maintenance logbook."

Despite the contractor telling the OIG in an interview that it was not their responsibility to maintain the balance, the inspector general report said that "the contractor should have notified either the contractor's management or the EPA that the balance was not operating properly, so repairs could have been made."