EPA weakens oversight of toxic chemicals

Living on Earth
Westlake Chemical

A Westlake Chemical Corporation petrochemical facility is pictured in West Lake, Louisiana, June 12, 2018.

Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

In 2016, Congress strengthened the Toxic Substances Control Act to give the EPA power to review thousands of chemicals for safety. Now the agency has decided to narrow that mandate —  and will begin disregarding the potential effects of exposure caused by the presence of chemicals in the air, soil and water.

The bipartisan overhaul of the law provided uniform federal review standards for thousands of everyday chemicals. When it passed, the Obama-era EPA began reviewing more than 40,000 chemicals, with a particular focus on 10 chemicals already on the market.

But with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s recent decision, "it’s like the law had never been revised," says Britt Erickson, senior editor at Chemical and Engineering News. 

In passing the law, Congress required the EPA to start with the aforementioned 10 chemicals. The agency is required to complete its evaluation of these chemicals by December 2019 — and if it finds any risks with those 10 chemicals, to take an additional two years to do something about those risks. “So, we're looking at 2021, at the earliest, to see some sort of action on those 10 chemicals,” Erickson says.

The controversy stems from a narrowed scope of study surrounding these chemicals Under the EPA's new standard, the agency will mostly ignore potential exposure caused by those chemicals' presence in the air, ground or water and instead focus only on the potential harm caused by direct contact in a work setting or other location. The result of this policy change is that any potential harm stemming from the improper disposal of those chemicals will factor little in deciding whether to restrict a chemical.

Seven of these 10 chemicals are solvents, like trichloroethylene, which is found in some adhesives and spot removers; tetrachloroethylene (or PERC), which is used in dry cleaning; and methylene chloride, which is found in paint strippers. All of these chemicals are known to have adverse health effects and some, including, methylene chloride, can be fatal at high exposures. So, EPA’s decision to focus only on direct contact with these chemicals and to exclude from their safety calculations exposure through the air, ground and water has caused great concern among environmental scientists and public health advocates.

According to an Environmental Defense Fund analysis, the new approach will not take into account 68 million pounds of chemicals that will be released into the atmosphere, water or soil by just seven of the 10 chemicals currently under review.

"I think it's a shame for the subpopulations, the vulnerable subpopulations — the pregnant women, the children, the elderly, the immunocompromised," Erickson says. "They're the ones who are really going to be hit by the weakened rules."

Most of these solvents are carcinogens and are “extremely hard to get rid of once they're in the environment,” Erickson says.

The good news: Unless they contact these chemicals in their work environment, consumers do not often experience direct exposure to them and can take safety precautions if they believe they might be exposed.

“You have to be exposed to a chemical to actually be harmed by it, even if it is a dangerous chemical,” Erickson says. “So, if you're using these methylene chloride paint strippers and you wear the proper safety gear, you'll be OK.”

Consumers can also check the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency creates toxicity profiles for every chemical and consumers can use them to determine whether a chemical is hazardous.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.