In this EPA, low priority is a high priority

You may have heard the statistics: 80,000 industrial, commercial and consumer product chemicals registered for use in the U.S. with little if any health data on most, and few hazardous chemicals restricted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Thus, you might naturally think that EPA’s focus under the reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) would be identifying and limiting chemicals that threaten human health or the environment. But you’d be wrong.

In yet another concerning move at EPA, the Agency announced its intention to focus more on low-risk chemicals than on hazardous, risky ones. In comments to EPA, UCSF PRHE, academics, scientists and clinicians strongly disagreed with this approach, highlighting that EPA should concentrate its resources on protecting public health from dangerous chemicals because this is what the law emphasizes, and what the public expects.

Reformed TSCA requires EPA to evaluate existing chemicals through the process shown in the diagram below.

blog post figure
Figure adapted from US EPA

In the first phase of pre-prioritization and prioritization, EPA is directed to consider the following 10 factors and then sort chemicals into two buckets, high priority or low priority:

  • Hazard
  • Exposure potential
  • Persistence
  • Bioaccumulation
  • Potentially exposed and susceptible subpopulations
  • Storage near significant sources of drinking water
  • Conditions of use
  • Significant changes in conditions of use
  • Volume manufactured or processed
  • Significant changes in the volume manufactured or processed

High priority chemicals are those that may present risks to human health, vulnerable populations or the environment; for example a chemical may pose a cancer risk, be used in children’s products, or have characteristics that make it a PBT. These high priority chemicals will move on for a thorough assessment by EPA in the risk evaluation phase.

On the other hand, if a chemical does not present unreasonable risks based on sufficient data, EPA can designate it as low priority. A low priority designation is very valuable for chemical manufacturers because it essentially deems a chemical to be safe, opening the door for unrestricted use of the chemical. The law requires that EPA can only call a chemical low priority on the basis of ‘sufficient’ information—which means reliable data demonstrating that a chemical does not present health hazards. This is critical because low priority chemicals would likely have widespread human exposures, including to susceptible populations like children.

As shown in the diagram, reformed TSCA requires EPA to designate at least 20 high- and 20 low- priority chemicals by the end of 2019. EPA indicated its intent to fast track more than the required 20 chemicals into the ‘safe’ low priority zone; this is a misdirected approach that could slow EPA’s progress on dangerous chemicals. The right priority for public health is for EPA to focus its resources on identifying and limiting risky chemicals to protect people’s health.

About the Author

Veena Singla, PhD is a Senior Scientist in the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program at Natural Resources Defense Council. Prior to that, she was the Associate Director of Science & Policy at PRHE.

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