By Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
When he was a candidate for President, Donald Trump (in)famously said that he could stand in the middle of fifth avenue and shoot somebody, and he wouldn’t lose any voters. While he hasn’t taken that particular step, his Administration has not been shy about demonstrating its disregard for human life—and particularly workers—in other ways. When it comes to protecting workers, as well as the general public, from exposure to dangerous and even deadly toxic chemicals, the Trump EPA has bent over backwards to ensure that workers are not protected, from unsafe exposures to hazardous materials.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment & Climate Change is holding a hearing today on the Trump EPA’s failure to protect workers from toxic chemicals. There is a long list of examples the committee could choose from. Here are just a few of the most egregious:
Failure to ban Methylene Chloride (MC) and NMP in paint strippers
At least four deaths have occurred since the Trump Administration refused to finalize a ban on consumer and commercial uses of methylene chloride (MC) and N-methylpyrollidone (NMP) in paint strippers that had been proposed under the Obama Administration. In the face of lawsuits and consumer demand, more than a dozen retailers including Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Amazon have committed to pulling the products from their shelves. Despite this show of public and retailer demand for safer paint stripping products, the Trump EPA is poised to execute a smoke and mirrors stunt that will both undercut retailers and ensure that workers and consumers will continue to be exposed to these dangerous products.
EPA’s final rules—expected possibly by the end of this week—will “ban” consumer uses of MC (but not NMP) in paint-strippers but allow its continued commercial use; a loophole that will leave commercial products on the shelves for anyone to purchase, including non-commercial users and thereby making even the consumer ban meaningless. Although EPA is announcing a future program for the training and certification of workers to safely use the NMP and MC paint strippers; this was previously proposed by the chemical industry and rejected as ineffectual and unenforceable by the Obama EPA. Nobody should be fooled: injuries and deaths will continue for workers and consumers with these loophole rules, made by and for industrial chemical manufacturers.
Failure to ban Chlorpyrifos
In one of his first acts as EPA Administrator, corrupt and disgraced Scott Pruitt announced that EPA would rollback the Obama EPA proposed ban on agriculture uses of chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide made by Dow Chemical and linked to acute worker poisonings and lasting neurological problems in prenatally exposed children. NRDC and our partners including Pesticide Action Network and Earthjustice are using the law and science to compel EPA to finalize protections. Sadly, the Trump EPA seems to consider harm to kids, workers, even whole communities as just the price of doing business.
Attempts to weaken protections for pesticide applicators
Another early Trump Administration initiative was to weaken existing protections for pesticide applicators. The Farm Bureau and the pesticide manufacturers—two lobbying groups that predictably attack any restraints on agrochemicals—announced plans to reverse those protections, some of which were designed to protect workers under the age of 18. However, after some heroic advocacy by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and others, Trump EPA caved. Thankfully, the worker protections remain in place, but the immorality of Trump EPA’s attempt is no less stark.
Pretending that workers will be protected from the dangers of new chemicals
One of the most “in the weeds” but insidious decisions taken by the Trump EPA on behalf of the chemical industry is its approach to reviewing the safety of proposed new chemicals under the recently revised Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA). Under the law, EPA is required to review applications for new chemicals, and ensure that each one is not likely to pose an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment, with a specific obligation to account for the safety of particularly susceptible populations, including pregnant women, children and workers. If EPA can’t make a determination that the proposed chemical isn’t likely to pose an unreasonable risk, it must impose restrictions that will be sufficient to protect the public (or the environment), up to and including rejecting a proposed new chemical.
The new TSCA requirements enacted by Congress in 2016 establish a process under which EPA is both authorized and obligated to protect the public—and it has particular consequences for workers because they are most likely to be exposed to new chemicals. But the Trump EPA instead adopted a chemical-industry crafted fiction: the presumption, despite evidence to the contrary, that workers will be protected from new chemicals because they will always use the personal protective equipment (things like gloves, eye protection, dust masks, respirators etc.) that is recommended in safety data sheets prepared by chemical manufacturers, and that it will always fit and function effectively. As an example of how misguided this is, the respirators recommended for working with methylene chloride will degrade upon exposure to methylene chloride, thus rendering them ineffectual. Rather than impose mandatory requirements on chemical manufacturers to protect workers as Congress intended (including engineering controls that are more effective and reliable than personal protective equipment), or preventing the introduction of new dangerous chemicals, EPA is pretending there is no problem. It’s a move both cynical and deadly.
Shoddy efforts to determine worker exposure to existing chemicals
The recent revisions to TSCA also require EPA to review the safety of a limited number of “existing” chemicals and determine whether they pose an unreasonable risk—including to workers and other susceptible populations (if they do EPA must take steps to address the risk). Thus far, EPA has only issued one of its draft “risk evaluations”—for a chemical known as pigment violet 29 (PV29). EPA is supposed to be doing a thorough analysis of both the toxicity of the chemical as well the amount of exposure to the chemical via its various uses (“conditions of use”). My colleague Dr. Jennifer Sass has blogged about the draft evaluation of PV29. There are numerous fundamental flaws with EPA’s approach, but here I’ll just note that EPA’s sole effort to document the degree of exposure to PV29 is reported by EPA as “personal communication” with someone at a PV29 manufacturing company that provided a verbal, undocumented, unverifiable, single numeric value for an exposure estimate. Whether this is secret science or no science, it is clearly unacceptable for risk assessment. EPA is now proposing that the chemical poses no unreasonable risk—which means that EPA plans to take no action to regulate its use. EPA has 9 more chemicals to assess by the middle of 2020. Once the evaluations are final they are ripe for legal challenge, and if the other evaluations do as shoddy of a job assessing exposure to workers (and others), it would be reasonable to expect that EPA will end up having to defend those decisions on court. Workers deserve better than EPA’s legally suspect cursory and disinterested efforts to determine the amount of toxic exposures in the workplace.
Excluding epidemiology studies
Historically, epidemiologic studies of human populations—and particularly occupational epidemiology of workers—are among the most important ways of determining the harm from toxic chemical exposures. Sadly, while these studies are critical to our understanding, they represent a failure to prevent harm since each “data point” in the study is a person—a parent or spouse or child—who suffers preventable diseases or death. Effective workplace health and safety protections should be in place to ensure that no worker dies in the course of earning a living and supporting a family. Nonetheless, it is unconscionable to disregard the human lives that were lost to chemical exposures by disregarding and discarding epidemiologic studies.
It has been a long-term agenda item for the chemical industry to weaken or eliminate the use of epidemiologic studies as a means of identifying potential risks and regulating chemicals to protect workers and the public. That agenda item quickly moved to the top of the Trump EPA’s To Do list, resulting in the widely-condemned “Censoring Science” rule which would largely eliminate EPA’s reliance on or consideration of these data. Think about it: EPA is proposing a policy to not learn about the deaths of workers, to ensure that it doesn’t have to take action to avoid future workers’ deaths. Could the Trump EPA really go any lower?
If a worker goes into his workplace and shoots the boss, it’s murder. If the boss poisons the worker a little bit each day, it is accepted as part of the job. Yet, although it takes longer, eventually the worker is just as dead. These half dozen examples are all appalling, and they speak to both the utter callousness of the Administration and its unwavering fealty to Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and other giant chemical manufacturers. And, these are just a few examples out of dozens that could be used to make the point.
Donald Trump may never actually shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, but his Administration has repeatedly shown that it will fight any new protections—or eliminate existing protections—for workers from dangerous toxic chemicals. It’s exactly what you would expect from the Chemical Industry Version of EPA and it calls for strong Congressional oversight and public resistance.