By Melanie Benesh, Environmental Working Group
On June 22, 2016, President Obama signed into law a significant overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the nation’s primary chemical safety law. It was the first update to the law, which was widely considered to be the least effective environmental law on the books, in 40 years.
But under Administrator Scott Pruitt’s leadership, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken every opportunity to undermine, not enhance, chemical safety. Two years later, here are 10 ways Pruitt’s EPA has failed to protect Americans under the new law:
1. Rubber-stamping new chemicals
The update to TSCA required the EPA to make affirmative safety decisions about new chemicals for the first time. At first, the EPA appeared to be taking this responsibility seriously by rigorously reviewing new chemicals before they could come onto the market. However, in August 2017, the Pruitt 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 more than 2,000 new chemicals, more than half of which have been approved to come onto the market. In January, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA over its actions on new chemicals.
2. Delaying a ban on a toxic paint-stripping chemical that has caused four deaths in one year
Methylene chloride is a highly toxic chemical used in paint strippers that until recently most consumers could 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 using paint strippers containing the chemical since the ban was proposed, 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. In the absence of EPA action, several retailers – including Lowes, Sherwin Williams and Home Depot – have taken steps to remove methylene chloride paint strippers from their shelves.
The fate of N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone, another toxic paint-stripping chemical the EPA previously considered banning, remains uncertain.
3. Abandoning proposed bans on uses of TCE, the chemical from “A Civil Action”
Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a known carcinogen made infamous in the book and movie “A Civil Action.” It has caused various cancers in former residents of the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina, and it contaminates military bases throughout the U.S. TCE is also linked to birth defects, hormone disruption, Parkinson’s disease, and damage to the immune system and kidneys. The EPA proposed banning some uses of TCE in aerosol degreasing, spot cleaning and vapor degreasing, in December 2016 and January 2017. But earlier this month, the Pruitt EPA signaled that it would delay or even scrap these proposed bans. The EPA also laid the groundwork to ignore a key study linking TCE to birth defects.
4. Gutting proposed “framework rules”
The updated TSCA requires the EPA to develop two so-called “framework rules” governing how the EPA chooses chemicals to assess and how it conducts those assessments. The EPA issued two proposed framework rules that were robust and health protective in the final days of the Obama administration. However, in July 2017, the Pruitt EPA gutted those proposed rules before finalizing them to be in line with the chemical industry’s priorities. More than a dozen environmental and public health groups have sued the EPA in response.
5. Cooking the books on risk assessments by excluding key exposures
The updated TSCA requires the EPA to, for the first time, systematically and comprehensively assess chemicals already on the market by looking at all uses and exposures to a chemical. However, when the EPA released key scoping documents for its assessments of the first 10 chemicals last year, it excluded critical sources of exposures – like asbestos in old building materials, and 1,4-dioxane in personal care and cleaning products. In so-called “problem formulations” released earlier this month, the EPA narrowed these assessments even further and excluded major routes of chemical exposure like air pollution, waste disposal and even drinking water. An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund found that the EPA will ignore more than 68 million pounds of seven out of the 10 chemicals released into air, water and land every year.
6. Stacking leadership positions with industry-friendly nominees and appointees
The EPA has also looked to industry advocates to fill leadership positions in the offices responsible for implementing the new law. Nancy Beck, who holds a leadership position in the EPA’s chemical safety office, came to the agency directly from the American Chemistry Council, where she lobbied for weaker chemical safety regulations. Michael Dourson was nominated for the top post in the 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.
7. Protecting “secret chemicals”
The updated TSCA limits the amount of information the EPA can keep secret about chemical information submitted to the agency, including safety studies. However, an analysis earlier this year found that the EPA is routinely ignoring this change in the law, and is failing to release health and safety studies provided with new chemical filings. In recent guidance, the EPA also failed to acknowledge its obligation to give certain government and medical professionals access to chemical information the agency possesses.
8. Cutting critical agency resources
The new law imposes many new requirements on the agency. To meet these new obligations, the agency needs adequate resources. Nonetheless, the fee rule proposed by Pruitt’s EPA dramatically underestimates costs and lets the industry get away without paying its fair share. Additionally, the president’s budget, released in February, proposed significant cuts to the EPA – including deep cuts to programs that remediate lead in homes and research hormone-disrupting chemicals. 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.
9. Undermining EPA science
At the end of April, the EPA proposed radically changing the kinds of science the agency can rely on to guide 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. The proposed rule would also restrict some studies that haven’t been published. Even Nancy Beck acknowledged that these draconian measures would make it more difficult to make decisions under TSCA. In emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists, she warned the proposed rule would “jeopardize our entire pesticide registration/re-registration review process and likely all TSCA risk evaluations.”
10. Failing to adequately consider vulnerable populations
The updated TSCA requires the EPA to explicitly consider and mitigate risks to vulnerable populations like children, pregnant women, workers and the elderly. But by excluding key sources of exposure from its chemical safety evaluations, the EPA fails to protect these susceptible populations. For example, children drink more water per pound of bodyweight than adults. By excluding drinking water from its chemical risk evaluations, the EPA is failing to account for particular risks to children. By excluding waste disposal and air pollution from its evaluations, the EPA is failing to consider special risks for fenceline communities, where there may be higher concentrations of chemicals in the air or soil.