BLOG | EPA’s Bad Chemistry Is Killing Us 

Jeff Ruch

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EPA’s Bad Chemistry Is Killing Us 

In America, all chemicals are considered harmless until proven otherwise. That has allowed toxins to rack up high body counts before they are restricted or outlawed. 

By contrast, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries ban many chemicals that still flow freely though the stream of American commerce. That difference is a function of the fact that the basic U.S. chemical law, is decades old and did not account for the thousands of new chemicals introduced every year. 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA BuildingThat was supposed to change with the enactment of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (named after the late New Jersey senator who championed TSCA reform). That law, among other things, mandated EPA conduct risk-based chemical assessments for existing chemicals under a schedule of enforceable deadlines. 

As it was enacted in June 2016, implementation of the Lautenberg amendments was left to the Trump administration – with predictable results. To head up this effort, Trump brought in Nancy Beck, the poster-girl for the American Chemistry Council. She, in essence, turned these chemical risk assessments into industry sock puppets. 

To address growing bipartisan concern that one of the biggest environmental reforms of the past decade was going astray, Congress arranged for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to evaluate EPA’s performance. That report came out this week – and it was utterly scathing. The National Academies found that the EPA reviews completed so far failed every measure – “failing at being comprehensive, workable, objective, and transparent.” 

In response, EPA – now Biden’s EPA – swiftly declared – 

EPA is not using, and will not again use, the systematic review approach that was reviewedEPA is committed to following an open and transparent process [and] expects to publish and take public comment on a TSCA systematic review protocol that will adopt many of the recommendations in the Academies’ report later this year.” 

Given the statutory deadlines for these assessments, EPA is tasked with a job akin to overhauling a jet engine mid-way as it flies from New York to LA. To accomplish this, EPA will also have to overcome internal tendencies that have ossified over, not just years, but decades, notably – 

  • Allergy to Transparency. Despite its organizational pledge to act “as if in a fishbowl,” EPA typically is the antithesis of transparency. A key example is formaldehyde, one of the most ubiquitous chemicals in America to which millions of workers and consumers are exposed daily. For nearly three years, PEER has been fighting EPA in court to force the release of its draft assessment on formaldehyde which had been completed in 2017.   

If EPA is going to start embracing transparency, a good way to start would be releasing this long-overdue formaldehyde assessment.  

  • Shut the Industry Revolving Door. Besides political appointees like Nancy Beck, several key EPA managers were hired from industry and have engaged in regulatory monkey-wrenching, with many already returning to industry. To prevent recurrence, EPA will need to identify its managers, including civil servants, who are responsible for these skewed assessments and get rid of them. 
  • Lack of Focus or Follow-Through.  EPA has a history of talking big but rarely delivering. For example, it took several years for EPA to produce a timid, wholly inadequate proposed response to the Flint water crisis. Similarly, despite declaring PFAS – the “Forever Chemicals” – its top priority, it produced a hopelessly muddled “Action Plan” and has yet to propose, let alone complete, a single regulation.    

In short, EPA needs to significantly up its game well beyond its pre-Trump standards. 

As millions of lives, especially those of American workers, remain at risk, the stakes could not be higher. We cannot afford to wait much longer for EPA to transcend its old habits and finally become a 21st century regulator.   

Jeff Ruch is the Director of PEER’s Pacific office, having formerly served 22 years as the Executive Director of PEER.

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