EPA Ignores Important Exposures to Dangerous Chemicals, Increasing Risk to Public Health

Published Nov 19, 2018

EPA is conducting risk assessments on chemicals without considering the risk of exposure in air emissions, drinking water, and waste products.

What happened: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently conducting risk assessments on ten common yet dangerous chemicals in order to determine whether they should be banned or restricted. However, the agency appears to be limiting the types of exposures being considered and, in most cases, is only assessing exposures that occur through direct contact with the chemical. This approach fails to consider the risk of exposure to chemicals in air emissions, drinking water, and hazardous waste products.

Why it matters: Scientific studies by the federal government are the basis of key policies and regulations related to public health. Without a set of unbiased, accurate, and thorough risk assessments, the policies that protect us from the devastating effects of chemical hazards are bound to be compromised. According to several current and former EPA officials, the changes will likely lead to the agency finding lower levels of risks associated with these chemicals and therefore provide the agency with less of a reason to add new bans or restrictions on the chemicals. There is no scientifically valid reason to limit the number of exposures to a chemical when conducting a risk assessment. All forms of verifiable exposures pose at least some risk to the health, safety and well-being of the populace.

In 2016, the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was amended by Congress under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act. The Lautenberg Act required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for the first time, to examine hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals and to evaluate whether the chemicals required additional restrictions or removal from the market. The EPA is reviewing its first ten chemicals under this requirement. The rules governing how to conduct the risk evaluations on the ten chemicals were proposed in January 2017 under the Obama administration, where the EPA advocated the analysis of, to some extent, all conditions of use for a given chemical substance. However, the finalized rules in July 2017 contained notable departures from the previously proposed rules – the agency now may “exclude certain activities that EPA has determined to be conditions of use” from its analysis.

The specifics of these changes became clear when the New York Times examined 1,500 pages released by the agency and found that the EPA has, in most cases, decided to focus on chemical exposures through direct contact only. As a result, the EPA is mostly excluding chemical exposures that occur through the air, water or ground from its risk assessments. An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, using data from EPA sources, estimated that the EPA’s approach will effectively ignore 68 million pounds per year of emissions from air, water and ground for seven out ten of the chemicals currently being assessed.

One of the ten chemicals being evaluated is perchloroethylene, a chemical that is found in dry-cleaned clothes and metal degreasing and has been linked to cancer in an occupational setting. However, the EPA will not examine the risk from perchloroethylene in the following circumstances: 1) drinking water, where it is found in trace amounts in 44 US states, 2) the discharges of perchloroethylene in streams or lakes, 3) landfills containing the chemical, or 4) the air emissions from dry-cleaners or manufacturing plants. This directly contradicts a risk assessment conducted by the EPA in 2017 on perchloroethylene, where all these sources were considered. The risk assessments on another one of the ten chemicals, asbestos, may be even further restricted. A proposed rule in June 2018 states that, when reviewing applications to use asbestos in consumer products, a federal risk assessment will only occur when asbestos is used in 15 specific ways. Internal emails show that these changes were brought about by top EPA officials and that EPA scientists and lawyers clearly objected to these changes. The EPA scientists and lawyers argued that the agency could not anticipate all future uses of asbestos and that the changes desired by top officials could result in some uses of asbestos not being evaluated for safety.

Using techniques straight out of the Disinformation Playbook, the chemical industry has repeatedly pressured the EPA to take a more narrow approach to evaluating the safety and risks from chemicals. For example, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) presented an argument to limit the types of chemical exposures assessed by the EPA in front of the House Science Committee in February 2017. The ACC said that it was “unreasonable and inconsistent” that the EPA interpreted the 2016 amendment to TSCA as a way “to evaluate all conditions of use of a chemical” and that the “EPA has discretion to select the conditions of use that it will consider in the scope of a risk evaluation” (emphasis in original). Taken together, the fewer exposures to a chemical that EPA examines, the more likely the agency will find the chemical safe. It is also known that Trump appointee Nancy Beck, a top deputy at the EPA’s toxic chemical unit, worked for five years as an executive for ACC and incorporated changes in the EPA’s implementation of TSCA that were asked by the chemical industry, in some cases word-for-word.

The EPA’s response to this criticism is that other laws, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, already provide the authority to regulate chemicals in the air, rivers and drinking water. However, three former EPA officials, including a former supervisor of the toxic chemical program, disagree with this evaluation. They say that this approach will lead to an incomplete, flawed analysis that will fail to consider the full scope of the threat that is posed by the chemicals. Two Congressmen, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), have also made statements expressing disagreement, saying that the EPA was not following its directive to carry out comprehensive risk analyses. The Environmental Defense Fund and 14 other health, labor and environmental groups are challenging the rule that justifies this approach in court, arguing that the 2016 amendment to TSCA requires the EPA to evaluate a chemical’s entire lifecycle, from manufacturing to use to disposal.

Comprehensive risk assessments on chemical hazards that are conducted by the EPA should be “employed in a manner consistent with the best available science,” as dictated by TSCA. By actively ignoring certain exposures in its risk assessments, the EPA is not employing the best scientific practices for assessing chemical exposures and is almost certainly underestimating how often people come in contact with some dangerous chemicals. When our public health policies are not grounded in the best available science, these policies are bound to be less effective at keeping people safe and healthy.