By Melanie Benesh, Environmental Working Group
Today is the first day of an Environmental Protection Agency summit on perfluorinated substances, or PFAS. The group of chemicals is linked to a host of health issues, including cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity and other health issues.
Perfluorooctanic acid, or PFOA, was used to make Teflon and is the most infamous of these chemicals. PFAS chemicals are responsible for contaminating drinking water in dozens of communities and military bases across the U.S. They also show up in personal care products, food packaging, textiles, and even baby products. Because most of these chemicals never break down, some call them “forever chemicals.”
Last week, news broke that the EPA tried suppress a study from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that found the EPA’s proposed safe level of exposure for two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, in drinking water was likely significantly too high.
But the EPA’s actions on PFAS chemicals are just the latest of many EPA actions to undermine chemical safety under Administrator Scott Pruitt’s leadership. Here are 13 of the most egregious ways the EPA has been working to make your life more toxic.
- Delayed a damning study on formaldehyde. The EPA isn’t just trying to hide the dangers of PFAS chemicals from the public. The agency has also delayed its release of results from an assessment linking formaldehyde to leukemia and other cancers. Although the study was completed in the fall, top EPA officials have reportedly intervened to delay publication.
- Delayed a ban on a deadly paint stripping chemical. Methylene chloride is a highly toxic chemical used in paint strippers that most consumers can buy at their local hardware stores. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed banning it. However, the EPA signaled in December that the ban would be delayed indefinitely. At least four people have died from the chemical since then and more than 50 people have died from it since 1980. Although the EPA recently reversed course and announced it would be taking action on methylene chloride after meeting with victims’ families, many important details remain unknown. The fate of N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone, or NMP, another toxic paint-stripping chemical the EPA previously proposed regulating is also unknown.
- Indefinitely delayed a ban on the “A Civil Action” chemical. Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a known carcinogen made infamous in the novel and movie “A Civil Action.” It is also linked to various cancers in former residents of the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina and it contaminates military bases throughout the U.S. The EPA proposed banning some uses of TCE in December 2016 and January 2017. But in December 2017, the EPA signaled that it would delay the proposed ban on these uses indefinitely.
- Reversed a ban on a pesticide that damages kids’ brains. Chlorpyrifos is a pesticide that is also a potent neurotoxin, particularly risky to children’s brains. After a decade of advocacy from concerned stakeholders, the EPA proposed to ban the pesticide in October 2015. Facing a court-ordered deadline, EPA was poised to finally ban the pesticide in March 2017. Instead, the EPA chose to abruptly reverse course and allow the pesticide to stay on the market.
- Gutted proposed rules for reviewing chemical safety. In June 2016, Congress passed a historic update to the Toxic Substances Control Act, the country’s primary chemical safety law. In the final days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed robust, health-protective rules governing how the EPA will choose chemicals to assess and how it will conduct those assessments. In July 2017, the EPA gutted those rules before finalizing them in line with the chemical industry’s priorities.
- Rubber-stamped hundreds of new chemicals. The 2016 update to the Toxic Substances Control Act also substantially changed the way the EPA is supposed to assess new chemicals for safety. But in August 2017, the EPA fundamentally changed the way it was reviewing these new chemicals and eliminated a backlog of 600 new chemicals overnight. Since June 2016, the EPA has reviewed nearly 2,000 new chemicals, more than half of which have been approved to come onto the market.
- Hobbled a program designed to promote safer consumer products. Safer Choice is an EPA program designed to identify safer chemicals and promote the use of less toxic chemicals in consumer products like cleaners. But in February, the EPA cut the staffing for this program by one-third.
- Undermined EPA science. At the end of April, the EPA proposed dramatically changing the kinds of science the agency can rely on to guide agency decision-making. This so-called “secret science” rule would prevent the agency from relying on studies based on confidential medical data – even if those studies are thoroughly peer-reviewed. This proposed rule would threaten the science the EPA relies on to issue air pollution rules estimated to have already saved thousands of lives. The proposed new rule could also undercut Pruitt’s “war on lead.”
- Stacked EPA’s advisory boards with pro-industry scientists. Last fall, the agency announced that it would no longer allow academics who have received EPA grants, even if they are leading experts in their field, to continue serving on EPA advisory boards. Because many academic scientists rely on EPA grants, this new rule allowed the EPA to stack its advisory boards with industry scientists.
- Filled key positions with industry-friendly appointees and nominees. The EPA has also looked to industry advocates to fill leadership positions within the agency. Nancy Beck, who holds a leadership position in the EPA’s chemical safety office, came to the EPA directly from the American Chemistry Council, where she lobbied for weaker chemical safety regulations. Michael Dourson was nominated for the top post in EPA’s chemical safety office after a long career of doing junk science for the chemical industry. He withdrew his nomination after significant public backlash. Kathleen Hartnett White’snomination to head the Council on Environmental Quality was also withdrawn after her record of denying the well-documented risks of radiation in water was exposed. Bill Wehrum, prior to becoming the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation chief, was fighting against an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule to protect workers from silica exposure. Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s second-in-command, has a long history of lobbying for the coal industry.
- Betrayed worker safety. Pruitt’s EPA has also significantly betrayed worker safety. Last week, the agency announced plans to repeal important accident-prevention rules at chemical and fertilizer plants, putting workers and communities near more than 10,000 facilities at risk. The EPA has also delayed, and is considering gutting, new rules to protect agricultural workers – including minimum age requirements for applying pesticides and additional training requirements – that were finalized in 2015. Time will tell if the agency heeds a request to limit the way it considers worker safety when considering whether to approve new chemicals.
- Cut funding and staffing. The president’s budget proposed significant cuts to the EPA – including deep cuts to programs that remediate lead in homes, research hormone disrupting chemicals, and clean up bodies of water like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, the EPA has put significant pressure on employees to leave the agency with early buyouts, putting the agency at its lowest staffing levels since 1988.
- Killed a rule designed to help clean up a toxic chemical in school light fixtures. As many as 26,000 schools may be contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which can leach from caulk, sealants or aging fluorescent light ballasts. In 2016, the EPA proposed a rule to regulate fluorescent light fixtures with these chemicals. However, just days after President Trump took office, the rule was withdrawn from review.