Protecting people from chemical hazards — another EPA failure in the making

Protecting people from chemical hazards — another EPA failure in the making

Most Americans assume that the chemicals in the consumer products we buy, such as that long list of unpronounceable ingredients in your bathroom cleaner or laundry detergent, have been tested and found safe for people and the environment. The truth is, not so much. And Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is missing an important opportunity to make those products safer.

For decades, efforts to ensure chemical safety were stymied by an ineffective regulatory regime: the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which regulated household and industrial compounds, was widely regarded as toothless.

During my 20-plus year career at EPA, I served as a senior manager in the agency’s toxics program from 1987 to 1989. The weakness of the original TSCA was a key factor in my decision to leave that position.

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After years of intense discussion and negotiations, TSCA was finally amended in 2016. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (the “new” TSCA) mandates that EPA evaluate new and existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines, employing risk-based evaluations to determine whether a chemical poses threats to human health and the environment.

It also lowered some of the hurdles to acquiring the information needed to make these judgments. The EPA is now conducting risk evaluations of existing chemicals under the amended Act. The early results are discouraging, at best. 

Given the many thousands of chemicals to prioritize and assess (or not), these risk evaluations and their associated management decisions on how to address any risks, are essentially “once in a lifetime” regulatory determinations. There is no requirement to revisit these assessments and decisions at any time. Therefore, EPA has an obligation to get it right the first time.

EPA has established a priority-setting process, ostensibly designed to identify and assess the “worst, first” — that is, the high-priority substances that have the greatest hazard and exposure potential. To date, draft risk evaluations for five of the first ten chemicals undergoing assessments have been issued for public comment and scientific peer review. And a very troubling pattern has begun to emerge — on both process and substance. 

On process, while public comment periods have been set for up to three months, scientific peer reviews have been scheduled during, rather than after, these comment periods. This deprives peer reviewers of the opportunity to consider useful and robust feedback from stakeholders during their deliberations. The scheduling suggests that the agency values meeting the deadlines for decisions over the integrity of the information and its analysis.

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On substance, each of these draft risk evaluations suffers from fatal flaws, some in common, others specific to the chemical under scrutiny. The overarching “systematic review process” used for identifying, selecting and grading the information to be used in each evaluation was not subjected to expert peer review before being adopted, and has since been soundly criticized by experts in the field. 

In addition, EPA has not determined whether the scientific data available for each chemical under review are sufficient to make a finding about their risk. Nor has the agency made any accommodation for the inadequacy of data in determining what would be an adequate margin of exposure/safety. The agency could have saved substantial resources by addressing the problem of inadequate data on the front end. Indeed, it could have used its enhanced capabilities under the new law to request critical data from manufacturers and importers before conducting risk evaluations.   

In addition, EPA arbitrarily excluded some exposure scenarios impacting women and children, and did not adequately document potential risks to susceptible and highly exposed populations. Furthermore, when conducting exposure assessments for all populations, including workers, the agency excluded exposures from ambient air, water or soil, arguing that those would be covered by other environmental statutes. This ignores the reality that people face exposures from multiple sources — at home, at work and in the ambient environment.

Lastly, the agency has said that workers face “no unreasonable risk” from exposure to some chemicals in some situations, based on the presumption they will use fully-functional personal protective equipment. However, the reality is that personal protective gear often is not mandated or provided, does not function properly and/or is not used consistently by workers. 

The new TSCA raised hopes that Americans could finally trust the safety of chemicals in the products they use every day.  But if the first few EPA draft risk evaluations are any guide, we cannot expect that future chemical reviews will be credible and adequate, or provide confidence that public health and the environment will be protected. Based on the work thus far, I am not optimistic.      

Penelope A. Fenner-Crisp Ph.D. is the former deputy director and senior science Advisor at the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs.