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Defending Public Health against the EPA

08.16.2018

Almost exactly one year ago, we filed our lawsuit in federal court against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), demanding that it fulfill its mandate to protect public health—instead of illegally refusing to properly enact the 2016 chemical safety reform we fought for a decade to pass.

While our legal action is making its way through the courts, the Trump EPA has continued to try to sacrifice public health for the sake of protecting private industry's profits. And so we've been standing up for the health of kids and families across the country, and pushing back.

Below are the most recent EPA actions that threaten to harm the health of families and communities across the country, and links to the comments we've submitted in opposition—which help to establish a basis to challenge agency decisions in court:

Stacking the Deck

With this EPA, there seems to be no daylight between the chemical industry’s wishes and the agency’s actions. The agency is proposing two rules that forces its staff to ignore thousands of rigorous, peer-reviewed health studies, making it harder to justify protections from toxic chemicals—and easier for the Trump administration to roll back regulations.

First, at the urging of polluting industries, the current leadership of the EPA has proposed a new rule to solve an imaginary problem—something they call “secret science.” They paint a bleak picture of scientists gathering data “behind closed doors” and say that to “strengthen transparency” the EPA should only use research if the public can see every last piece of underlying data.

But here’s the reality: many important health studies rely on personal data, such as individual medical records, that can’t be made public—ethically or legally. Under this plan, EPA staff could be forced to throw those important studies out.

We recently asked you to join us in submitting comments to the EPA in opposition to this plan, and dozens of you joined us in publicly pushing back. THANK YOU. 

Now you can also read the comments we've submitted with our friends at Earthjustice and 88 other environmental, farm worker, environmental justice, and public health organizations.

Second, when it comes to evaluating health studies on toxic chemicals, the EPA is trying to use a new system that excludes unbiased academic studies and favors research bought and paid for by the chemical industry. The so-called "TSCA Systemic Review" claims to provide a way to determine the quality of research used by the toxics office. Unfortunately, its "too flawed to be used," say our friends at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC)—and we'd have to agree.

NRDC describes an example of how this process will look in practice:

Prior to the chemical industry’s takeover of the Toxics office, EPA career experts conducted a systematic review of non-industry studies that linked exposures to the toxic solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) during fetal development to congenital heart defects (see EPA 2016 Proposed Rule, p. 10-12). Based on this evidence, EPA managers under the Obama Administration proposed bans on the uses and products that posed the most dangerous risk. 

In response, the chemical industry conducted its own review with funding to corporate consulting firm ToxStrategies from Entek International, whose Oregon-based battery parts operations has been repeatedly fined  for violations related to its TCE pollution including allegedly poisoning its workers. Its review used an approach very similar to the one described in the TSCA Systematic Review and concluded that the studies showing harm were all flawed. This is a real-world example of how a faulty systematic review process can lead to the inevitable exclusion of studies that show the potential harm posed by a chemical from a supposedly neutral assessment.

That's why we joined NRDC and Safer Chemicals Healthy Families in opposing this attempt to give the multinational chemical industry control over the science that regulators use to decide how to protect us from toxic chemicals.

An Incomplete Picture

EPA was required under the 2016 reforms to evaluate the safety of ten existing chemicals, launching a process that will see additional chemicals evaluated over time, helping to play catch-up on decades of rubber-stamping dangerous and toxic chemicals for widespread use.

We are carefully monitoring this work, both to ensure that the hazards from these ten chemicals are addressed, but also to make sure the precedent is set for strong evaluations going forward. 

Unfortunately, EPA’s efforts to date are disappointing. The agency is attempting, contrary to statute, to vastly limit the scope of their evaluations, ignoring many ways that families, children, and workers are exposed to chemicals.

The EPA wants to ignore prior uses of a chemical, even while people are still exposed to those old uses, and even if the chemical is in a new product made from recycled material that contains it.

The EPA also wants to ignore all uses of a chemical that theoretically could be regulated by another environmental law, even if the chemical is not, in fact, being regulated, or even if the safety standard under that law is less than that required under TSCA.

And that’s just a few of the problems with their approach.

The more the EPA can winnow down what it actually looks at, the less likely the agency is to find there is enough risk to human health from a given chemical to justify regulation.

In one horrible example, the EPA wants to drastically narrow the scope of its review of asbestos, the toxic material linked to lung cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Certain brands of makeupcrayons, and body powders have all recently come under scrutiny for containing toxic asbestos. Why? These products all contain talc, and talc and asbestos deposits naturally co-occur in many places and when mined, are often difficult to fully separate. This is hardly a new problem, with recent lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson finding that manufacturers knew about this problem for decades. 

Despite the fact that asbestos contamination in talc is a widely known health threat, the EPA's proposed evaluation of asbestos completely excludes asbestos in talc products.

And then there are the myriad other toxic chemicals from which the EPA is planning to fail to protect the public—including the deadly paint stripper chemicals methylene chloride and NMP and toxic flame retardant HBCD.

We've joined our colleagues at Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, as well as Earthjustice, in pushing back against these problematic evaluations in public comments.

Failing to Protect Children

Finally, the EPA has released the summary of exposures to and health impacts associated with five chemicals determined to be "persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic" (i.e., they don't break down, they build up in ecosystems or our bodies, and they harm our health), and asked expert reviewers to comment on them.

What the agency released was frustrating.

Since the risk of PBTs is so clear, Congress instructed the EPA to rapidly move towards enacting restrictions on their use, without necessitating a risk assessment, and without regard to the economic costs. The EPA has extensively evaluated these chemicals previously and already knows they qualify as PBTs.

But in these summaries, the agency made no attempt to clarify what information it needs to be able to move forward with finally regulating these chemicals, keeping them from entering the environment, and preventing them from ultimately harming the health of kids and families.

Moreover, while the EPA's own evaluation identified unique ways in which children would be exposed to these chemicals, the EPA isn’t describing children’s total exposure to a chemical in a way that that fully takes this information into account.

Failing to look at the ways in which kids are uniquely exposed to these toxic chemicals means that EPA may not fully institute the tough regulations that Congress directed, to put an end to uses that are causing children across the country to increasingly accumulate several of these chemicals in their bodies.

We joined Safer Chemicals Healthy Families in comments publicly opposing these evaluations, which you can read here.

What can you do to help us defend public health?

Support our work to defend public health against the Trump EPA with the most generous gift you can, today. And be sure you're subscribed to our action alerts and monthly newsletter to find out ways you can join us in pushing back and standing up for the health of kids and families.

Thank you, so much, for your support—YOU make this work possible!