By Matt Shudtz, Center for Progressive Reform
August is the time for back-to-school shopping, leading parents everywhere on the search for the best deals to fill our kids’ backpacks. When that search ends at bargain outlets and dollar stores, though, there is a hidden cost many may not be aware of: the health burden from toxic chemicals in cheap consumer goods. Our chemical safety laws do not do enough to protect our children and families, so public health advocates like the Campaign for Healthier Solutions are putting pressure directly on the retailers to ensure the products on their shelves are safe for their customers.
Looking at the recently released regulatory agenda for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP), it is clear that any progress toward protecting people from the hazards of toxic chemicals that surround us will have to come from similar grassroots campaigns as long as President Trump keeps stacking EPA with appointees with deep ties to the chemical industry.
The chart below summarizes the state of play at OCSPP. Bottom line: the office is in a deep freeze, with nearly all actions delayed, save for a few items that are obvious handouts to favored industries. What’s striking about this list is the degree to which regulatory delay and shifting priorities undermine a core function of toxic chemical regulation – protecting people from the hazards that can cost them dearly in terms of health, well-being, and the ability to earn a living.
EPA has put the brakes on nearly every effort to address chemical hazards that was deemed a priority in recent years and has done so without identifying any other hazards that might be of more concern to the new administration. Shifting priorities with new leadership is one thing, but the agenda summarized below reveals a lack of leadership at best, and a reactionary anti-Obama agenda at worst. Here are some of the most glaring problems:
Formaldehyde: Hurricane Katrina laid bare many ways the federal regulatory system failed in its function as a mitigator of social inequality – from the Army Corps of Engineers’ failed levees to FEMA’s toxic trailers, the poorest residents of New Orleans learned first-hand how federal programs that don’t work right can exacerbate social and economic inequality. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota came to the Senate determined to stop at least one of these problems right away. She found bipartisan support for legislation that would reduce or eliminate formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products like plywood, MDF, and particleboard. President Obama signed the bill into law in July 2010, and by December 2016, his EPA had finalized the rules that would ensure the law had teeth and would protect people against the risk of cancer, more severe asthma symptoms for kids, and more. But now Trump’s EPA is delaying the effective dates for emissions standards and other aspects of the rules while simultaneously rushing to provide “labeling relief” for manufacturers.
Lead paint: Hundreds of thousands of families across the United States live in homes that predate the 1978 ban on lead paint. Their children and others also spend time in public and commercial buildings from that era. EPA has set standards – weak ones, to be sure – regarding residential remodeling, renovation, and repair efforts that might expose kids to lead-tainted dust. But the agency has yet to address the threats posed by lead-tainted dust in commercial and public buildings. EPA’s latest regulatory agenda has put efforts to address all of these problems on the back burner and narrowed its focus in reviewing the residential standards to impacts on small businesses, rather than the families who live in the homes.
Pesticides: Scott Pruitt stomped on an effort to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which the American Academy of Pediatrics has described as being at the center of “a wealth of science demonstrating detrimental effects … to developing fetuses, infants, children and pregnant women.” His action defied the recommendations of EPA’s science advisors, but no doubt brought joy to the heart of the Andrew Liveris, an influential advisor to the Trump administration on regulations and the CEO of Dow Chemical, the company that manufactures the stuff. As dangerous as that decision is, it is limited to one pesticide. But the regulatory agenda for OCSPP shows that Pruitt’s team is delaying a variety of rules that would ensure pesticides are applied properly, by trained and certified experts, and that the companies that make the pesticides properly label them and share information about hazards as that information becomes available. Once again, the big-picture view here is walking away from protections for people while protecting corporate profits.
Solvents: Over the last few years, EPA’s chemical safety experts were prioritizing review of various chemicals used to clean greasy tools; strip paints, stains, and varnishes; and even remove stains from dry cleaning. For the first time in many years, the agency had even proposed banning certain uses of the most dangerous chemicals, like trichloroethylene (TCE) and methylene chloride (MC), using the Toxic Substances Control Act’s (TSCA) rarely used Section 6. But now all of that is on hold, and it is unclear what chemical hazards EPA might be focusing on instead.
Public information: To help identify chemical risks (and, cynically, in tacit recognition of the fact that EPA and other government agencies will never have the resources to comprehensively address chemical risks to communities), a number of programs exist that are designed to give agencies and the public access to information about chemical manufacture, use, release into the environment, and human health hazards. On its own initiative and as a result from pressure by environmental and community groups, EPA was pursuing rules that would expand public access to that kind of information, at least until Trump’s team came on the scene. They have delayed more than a dozen rules that would have brought information out of chemical companies’ databases and into the public sphere.
Now ask yourself: Whose homes are built with inexpensive flooring? Who spends the most time in buildings that have not been renovated since lead paint was banned? Who is spraying pesticides on crops or working near where pesticides are sprayed? Who is stripping paint from bathtubs, refinishing furniture, and cleaning greasy tools on a daily basis?
EPA’s agenda for toxics regulation abandons the most vulnerable members of our society and shifts focus instead to reducing alleged burdens on companies that have to provide basic information about the chemicals they manufacture or use, and how those chemicals might end up in consumer products or in our environment. Put simply, this regulatory agenda represents a drastic shift from a strategy focused on lifting people up, to a strategy focused on limiting corporate operating costs. In a matter of months, Trump and his team have upended a vital EPA function and adopted an agenda that turns EPA into a driver of social inequality, rather than part of the solution to that vexing problem.