How to fix chemical policymaking at EPA

The last four years have been a master class in how to put the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work for the chemical industry.

Overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates we are all exposed to multiple, industrial chemicals and pollutants in our environment and that these exposures affect our health, increase risk of disease, and jeopardize children’s development. EPA is directed to protect us from harmful chemicals and pollutants, but if it fails to use the most up-to-date scientific methods when evaluating the health impacts of chemicals, or changes the rules of the game (which EPA has done under the Trump administration) it will underestimate the health harms of numerous chemicals and put us all at greater risk.

The US government’s approach to chemical policy allows chemicals to stay on the market and affect our health long after scientists discover a problem. Congress attempted to remedy this scenario when it reformed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 2016; unfortunately, the law’s ability to protect public health from harmful chemical exposures has fallen woefully short.

The Trump administration took advantage of loopholes in the new law — or just ignored it entirely — leaving the public at greater risk from toxic chemicals.

For example, TSCA requires EPA to take special steps to protect children, pregnant women, and workers. Yet the leadership at EPA ignored evidence that trichloroethylene (TCE) is linked to fetal heart defects and that 1-Bromopropane damages children’s brains. It also 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.

TSCA also requires that EPA consider legacy uses — the chemicals we are already exposed to — when evaluating risk. Yet EPA underestimated the dangers of cancer-causing asbestos by evaluating only one type of asbestos fiber while disregarding others and failing to consider legacy uses workers face in buildings or brake pads that contain asbestos.

In other words, the Trump administration’s implementation of TSCA has been a public health failure. But many of these policy and regulatory decisions have not received the attention they deserve because they have been buried in technical maneuvers and methodologies. That doesn’t make the outcome any less damaging, however.

So how can we improve chemical policy and EPA procedures to protect health?

The University of California, San Francisco, Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment brought together scientists and policy experts from around the country to develop recommendations to improve chemical policymaking at EPA. Signed by more than 70 individuals and organizations, the main recommendations are for EPA to:

  1. Update and strengthen hazard and risk assessment processes
    Science has advanced on how industrial chemicals and environmental pollutants can adversely influence people’s health, yet the framework for evaluating the evidence in hazard and risk assessment has stayed largely the same since the 1970s. EPA needs to stop assuming there is no risk to chemicals or pollutants below a level assumed to be “safe” and it needs to correct its definition of susceptible populations to include children, pregnant women, and marginalized communities, as the updated TSCA outlines.

  2. Adopt science-based systematic review methods
    Recommended by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), systematic review methods set the “rules” of the game to better evaluate potential harms of environmental chemicals and inform decision-making. However, EPA is using a method that does not comply with current, established science and has resulted in underestimating risks of environmental chemicals and pollutants. EPA must implement a method that aligns with NASEM’s definition and immediately employ this approach for the ongoing TSCA risk evaluations.

  3. Remove conflicts of interest on scientific advisory boards
    Actions by the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries over decades demonstrate that when industry sponsors research, the results are more favorable to the sponsoring industry. The same is true in research funded by the chemical industry. EPA must address conflicts of interest on its advisory boards and consider industry funding a risk of bias in research.

  4. Put environmental justice front and center in everything EPA does
    Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals, pesticides, and accidental industrial releases and the way our government implements environmental laws does not ensure equal, socially just safeguards for environmental health. EPA must adopt environmental justice principles to reduce inequitable pollution exposures and provide additional resources to monitor and reduce environmental pollution in overburdened communities.

These steps can help EPA put health and science back at the forefront of its work and strengthen chemical policymaking to protect public health.