Congress amended the law that is supposed to protect people from dangerous chemicals. EPA’s current leadership is exploiting the law’s loopholes and making a mockery of it.
Four years ago, Congress passed and President Obama signed legislation to amend the nation’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that regulates chemicals in commerce, changes that were 40 years in the making.
Now, in the face of a pandemic and nationwide protests, EPA’s current leadership continues unabated to roll back environmental health protections and ignore key scientific evidence and practices in their implementation of TSCA. These include the following:
- Flawed methods—EPA developed a new TSCA methodology that ignores scientific and internationally accepted rules and procedures for how systematic evidence reviews should be conducted. This has resulted in incomplete and biased chemical evaluations that impair the regulation and use of billions of pounds of industrial chemicals that threaten public health.
- Ignoring science—EPA is ignoring evidence about numerous chemicals that scientists have determined pose serious health risks which has resulted in weakened or no regulation of these chemicals. For example, EPA underestimated the dangers of the cancer-causing asbestos by focusing its evaluation on only one type of asbestos fiber while disregarding others, failing to consider all health outcomes, failing to consider legacy uses (previous and ongoing exposures such as in buildings or brake pads to which workers can be exposed), and excluding evidence without justification among other issues.
- Legacy uses—Under the updated TSCA, EPA is supposed to consider “all exposures to a chemical or substance” to which people are already exposed when the agency assesses risk. But under the current administration, EPA has ignored legacy uses, for numerous chemicals including asbestos, formaldehyde, and 1,4-dioxane. That led to a 2019 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the agency can no longer ignore legacy uses of a chemical it evaluates. However, EPA has continued doing so, saying they will do it later, even though people continue to be exposed.
- Vulnerable populations—EPA was supposed to take special steps to ensure that pregnant women, children, and workers were protected. But for many of the chemicals under review in the past three years, that is not happening. For example, EPA ignored evidence related to chemicals used in dry cleaning such as trichloroethylene (TCE) (linked to fetal heart defects) and 1-Bromopropane (damages children’s brain development) that are a danger to children. And it disregarded evidence that methylene chloride, a hazardous paint stripper, was killing workers when the agency banned the chemical from consumer use, but not from commercial use.
- Missing deadlines—The new TSCA outlined a clear schedule of which chemicals EPA had to review first, and when, and how those reviews were to be conducted. EPA has failed to follow established processes. EPA Administrator Wheeler acknowledged during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee oversight hearing that the agency would miss the June 22, 2020, TSCA deadline on asbestos, designated one of TSCA’s “first 10 chemicals” because it is so dangerous. EPA could have met its deadlines, and more importantly protected the public’s health sooner, if they had not decided to rework already-established, scientifically sound methods and assessments.
- Failure to demand more data—For too many chemicals, there are gaps in what we know. The updated TSCA gave EPA clear authority to request data from companies to fill those gaps. However, in the four years since TSCA was amended, EPA has only issued a test order on one chemical.
In other words, the current administration’s implementation of TSCA is a public health failure. Additionally, the law is a high-stakes gamble as every EPA decision preempts the states from taking further action—something the chemical industry wanted.
As TSCA turns four, it is important to recognize that there are not enough teeth in the law to meaningfully protect public health. TSCA should require that the industry submit certain types of data on potential health harms, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental effects. And the process must ensure that the products people buy, and their air and water are safe.
So, for this TSCA birthday, our wish is for Congress to strengthen the chemical regulatory process and for science to be put front and center once again.