House investigates EPA’s failures on workers and toxic chemicals

The House Energy & Commerce sub-committee on Environment and Climate Change is holding a hearing on “Mismanaging Chemical Risks: EPA’s Failure to Protect Workers.”

Dr. Tracey Woodruff, Professor and Director at the University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, gave this statement:

“The science is clear: workers face disproportionately high toxic chemical exposures on the job, resulting in disease, disability and tragically, even death. Yet, EPA continues to delay finalizing rules to limit dangerous chemicals in the workplace, denying vital protections to men and women across the country. It’s time for EPA to follow the law and the science to ensure worker safety- no one should be poisoned at work.”


Seven ways EPA is failing workers

  1. Methylene chloride: Because EPA is delaying finalizing the 2017 rule proposed by the previous administration to ban dangerous paint stripping uses, industrial and commercial workers face ongoing serious risks including:
      • Incapacitation, coma and death (methylene chloride has killed at least 4 people since 2017)
      • Neurological toxicity
      • Liver toxicity
      • Cancers of the liver, lung, brain; non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma– in some cases worker risk is ~1,000 times greater than what EPA deems acceptable

These risks cannot be lowered to EPA’s acceptable level through use of controls such as respirators.

  1. N-methyl pyrrolidone (NMP): Because EPA is delaying finalizing the 2017 rule proposed by the previous administration to ban dangerous paint stripping uses, pregnant industrial and commercial workers face ongoing serious risks including:
      • Fetal death
      • Decreased infant birth weight

These risks cannot be lowered to EPA’s acceptable levels through use of controls such as gloves and respirators.

  1. Trichloroethylene (TCE): Because EPA is delaying finalizing 2016 and 2017 rules proposed by the previous administration banning dangerous aerosol degreasing, dry cleaning and vapor degreasing uses, industrial and commercial workers face ongoing serious risks including:
      • Developmental toxicity (fetal heart defects)- pregnant workers
      • Kidney toxicity
      • Immunotoxicity
      • Liver toxicity
      • Reproductive toxicity
      • Neurotoxicity
      • Cancers of the kidney, liver and non-Hodgkin lymphoma- in some cases worker risk is ~1,000 times greater than what EPA deems acceptable
  1. Pesticides: Starting in 2017, EPA delayed implementation of the Worker Protection Standard rule from the previous administration that would have provided basic protections for workers handling pesticides until recently forced by Congress. Prior to this, the worker protection rule had not been updated since 1992.

  2. Underestimating exposures: EPA plans to use unrealistic occupational exposure scenarios in its first 10 chemical assessments under TSCA, resulting in inaccurate assessments that underestimate the true risks to workers. Leading scientists and clinicians recommended that EPA cannot assume compliance with exposure controls and standards.

  3. Excluding known exposures: EPA will exclude ‘legacy’ uses of chemicals like asbestos in buildings from its TSCA assessments, resulting in underestimating the true risks to workers. Asbestos still kills almost 40,000 people every year and workers face the highest risks from asbestos in existing infrastructure during maintenance, repair, renovation and demolition.

  4. Failure to collect workplace data: To best evaluate worker exposures, EPA should request data from companies on levels of chemicals in workplaces’ air, dust and water. Though Congress expressly gave EPA authority to order testing to fill data gaps for assessment, EPA has yet to issue a single order.

In summary, EPA’s refusal to move forward and follow the science leaves workers in harm’s way. EPA should swiftly finalize the rules above and revise its assessments according to the evidence-based recommendations received from scientists and clinicians. This will ensure accurate assessments and form the foundation for subsequent actions needed to limit dangerous chemicals and protect people at work.


Background

Congress gave both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and EPA mandates and authorities to protect workers from toxic chemicals.

The reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requires EPA to safeguard the health of vulnerable communities including workers (sub-populations with “greater susceptibility or greater exposure” in the words of the law) from toxic chemicals.

Dr. David Michaels, former OSHA Assistant Secretary, spoke about critical problems with OSHA’s standards and processes, and the need for EPA action, at UCSF PRHE’s 2018 legislative briefing- view his talk and slides here and read his op-ed about these issues here.