Briefing Capitol Hill on why EPA must use best available science

The PRHE team went to Washington, DC last week to brief lawmakers and policy staff on how EPA can use best available science to improve the way it evaluates chemicals for potential human health harm for the Agency to better protect health, communities, and the environment. 

Moderated by Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, MPH, PRHE’s director, UCSF professor, and a former senior scientist and policy advisor at EPA, speakers were:  

Our chemical regulatory system is not working

“Our current system to regulate toxics is not working and puts people in harm’s way,” Woodruff said as she opened the briefing. With over 40,000 chemicals in use, increases in fossil fuel chemicals, such as ethylene and butadiene, and the dramatic rise in plastics production which contain chemicals such as phthalates, the regulatory system can’t keep up. 

“People can be exposed to toxics in events like in East Palestine or Flint, which are well known tragedies, but are also exposed through the food they eat, their work, in their neighborhoods, and the products they buy. The bottom line is the system that we have around toxics is stacked against the public and their health,” said Woodruff. 

“We urgently need change to improve health and health equity,” Woodruff said. “Yet EPA is using methods to evaluate harmful chemicals that largely haven’t changed since the 1970’s. We have come to Washington today to share scientific recommendations from 45+ scientists to update those methods to better account for real world hazards and exposures and better protect health.”

Ensuring chemicals are safe is a bi-partisan issue 

“If you’re looking for a bi-partisan issue, you’ve found it,” Lake said as she revealed highlights from a recent national survey she conducted that found overwhelming support for PRHE’s work. “Voters share an overwhelming belief that the government should require products be proven safe before companies are allowed to put them on the market,” Lake explained. Other highlights from the survey included: 

  • A majority of voters think that chemical regulations are not strong enough and voters do not believe that chemicals have been tested for safety.
  • Voters support the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by significant margins and are not really concerned about chemical regulations increasing costs or costing jobs.
  • Voters are more sensitive toward and concerned about chemicals that are ingested – in water, air, or food/food packaging.
  • Voters think that chemical companies and the government should be responsible for keeping products safe and most say they are willing to take action on this issue.

EPA’s “safe” levels aren’t really safe 

“The assumption of a “safe level” of chemical exposure is fundamentally flawed, as it does not account for the many factors that make some people more susceptible than others,” Heiger- Bernays said as she explained the importance of incorporating the best available methods to quantify chemical risks. 

Heiger-Bernays was part of a team that used the same data EPA relied on to determine a so-called “safe” level of exposure to Perchloroethylene (PCE). Using newer methods, the team found serious health effects below the level EPA calls “safe.”  

“The methods EPA is currently using are not sensitive enough and EPA is telling communities not to worry, but they should worry,” said Heiger-Bernays. “We found that 1 in 1,000 people exposed to PCE are predicted to have reduced visual memory function with exposure at the level EPA considers ‘safe.’ If everyone in the U.S. was exposed at this level, it would affect over 339,000 people or roughly the population of Cleveland, Ohio.” 

Loss of visual memory function can severely impact a person’s ability to work, read, and function. 

“Better methods are available,” Heiger-Bernays said. “EPA only has to use them. And Congress needs to make sure that they do.” 

Disproportionate impacts on communities of color 

“Some individuals and communities are more susceptible to disease risk from exposure to environmental chemicals and pollutants,” said Martinez. “And when EPA fails to use the best available science, they are essentially abandoning communities of color who are much more likely to live in harm’s way from polluters.” 

Martinez noted that people of color are 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one air pollutant and communities of color have substantially higher rates of infant mortality, diabetes, and premature mortality. 

“What I want you to take away from this is that all across the lifespan we have these health disparities and what’s shaping those are both intrinsic and extrinsic factors and we really need to address those,” Martinez said. 

To achieve environmental justice and equal protection, Martinez said it was essential for EPA to do two things: 

  1. Use new data and better science to account for variability in susceptibility of health risk. 
  2. Remove industry voices from EPA and amplify the voices of local communities. 

What the law says 

“The good news is that while our current systems for chemical regulation are not working, the laws we have in place already require EPA to adopt the science-based approaches that will lead to health-protective chemical assessments and decisions,” said Eve Gartner who has filed several lawsuits against EPA for failing to follow TSCA.  

Congress enacted TSCA in 1976 in response to a series of chemical spills and environmental disasters, but the law failed to live up to its promise so was overhauled in 2016 “passing both chambers nearly unanimously,” Gartner said.  

“TSCA requires EPA to ensure that chemicals do not present unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment across the entire life cycle of the chemical – from manufacturing to processing to distribution to use to disposal. … If EPA determines that the chemical presents an ‘unreasonable risk of injury’ it must promptly adopt rules that eliminate that risk,” Gartner said.   

“The jury is still out on whether EPA will implement the reformed version of TSCA in the way Congress intended and communities desperately need,” said Gartner who highlighted some positive signs:

  1. EPA agreed to conduct its first cumulative risk assessment under TSCA, covering six phthalates.
  2. EPA sued the chemical manufacturer Denka to reduce emissions of the carcinogen chloroprene from its Cancer Alley facility. 
  3. EPA proposed establishing an enforceable limit on a group of PFAS in drinking water. 

“The bottom line is that final regulatory actions based on these best available science approaches are needed, and quickly,” said Gartner. “Congress has a key role in holding EPA accountable for making decisions that truly protect people and communities from the toxic exposures that are resulting in pediatric cancers, infertility, learning disabilities and other harms that are increasing in frequency and destroying lives, especially in communities of color and low-income communities.”