This EPA appointee could impact the health of all Americans for decades

Americans should be able to trust that their government is protecting them from needless chemical risks in our homes and communities. While government, industry and the public health community don't always agree on the specifics of what this means, all did agree, in 2016, that an ineffective chemical safety system, which lacked public confidence, served no one. And Congress did something about it, by passing the first major environmental legislation in decades. Unfortunately, the fruits of that surprising and historic agreement are at risk of being lost.

Whether implementation of this law can be saved may well depend on a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appointee confirmed by the Senate on the very last day of the 115th Congress.

ADVERTISEMENT

We have reached this point by way of a long history of government’s inability to protect Americans from toxic chemical exposures. For much of my 38-year career at the EPA, I worked on the mission of chemical safety. We struggled, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, with an outmoded and ineffective law. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) didn’t give us the tools we needed to adequately review new chemicals before they were sold to consumers and industry, or to evaluate and stop or limit the use of dangerous chemicals such as asbestos and lead. 

After many years of debate and failed attempts to pass legislation, all sides came together to reform the law with strong bipartisan support in Congress. At the White House signing ceremony, Republicans and Democrats jockeyed for position on stage behind the president. Industry representatives and environmental advocates applauded and posed for pictures together. This success was possible because key constituencies were willing to engage in an honest effort to find a balance between their competing interests.

As the director of the EPA's chemicals program at that time, I knew that continued success would depend on implementing the law in a way that maintained the hard-won balance so critical to its passage. I also knew this would involve at least as much hard work, listening and compromise as passing it had required. 

Unfortunately, that balance has been lost. Implementation of the law has heavily skewed in the industry’s direction and away from bipartisan Congressional intent. This has played out in nearly every area of implementation, including the EPA’s adoption of industry-supported, narrow and selective approaches to evaluating the safety chemicals, and an approach to reviewing health testing that favors industry studies over those of university scientists. 

These are not merely process problems. Ignoring key sources of exposure to chemicals, and discarding important safety studies, will result in flawed and ineffective risk evaluations. 

Reversing progress on chemical safety will impact the health and safety of communities across the country. We risk repeating the mistakes of the past on other dangerous chemicals, with decades-long consequences for health and the environment.

The Senate has recently confirmed President TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE's nomination of Alexandra Dunn to head the chemical safety office at the EPA. At her confirmation hearing, Dunn and her record of public service and knowledge of environmental issues were received with cautious hope on the part of senators who helped to create the new law. They also pressed her to commit to putting implementation of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act back on track. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Dunn will have a key role in shaping how the EPA evaluates chemicals. Her decisions will have a major impact on Americans for generations. I can say from experience that the job is always difficult and that she will have her work cut out for her — perhaps more so than at any time in the past. I would urge her to acknowledge the need for a fundamental change in direction that makes clear the EPA will implement the law as intended, and to engage in open discussion and debate. After consulting with the interested parties and the EPA staff, she should quickly and publicly identify and take concrete steps that will demonstrate that new direction. 

Time is of the essence if the EPA wants to rebuild trust and start the long process of restoring public confidence in our chemical safety system. As someone who is convinced of the critical importance of chemical safety to a strong and healthy America, I hope Dunn and the EPA staff can begin this critical restoration and revive the broad cooperation and courage that led to the law’s landmark passage.

Wendy Cleland-Hamnett was the acting assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety during the last part of the Obama administration and the first eight months of the Trump administration.