The Pump Handle

EPA and the new TSCA – Stakeholders push agency in divergent directions  

As the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins work under the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century (LCSA) – the updated Toxic Substances Control Act – more striking divisions are emerging between what environmental health advocates and what chemical manufacturing and industry groups want from the law.

These go beyond what was voiced during the public meetings the EPA held in early August to gather input on the rules it will use to prioritize chemicals for review and evaluate those chemicals’ risks. A look at the written comments now submitted to the agency underscores how important these decisions will be. Depending on what the EPA decides, the LCSA could either usher in a new era of public health protections – or it could reinforce and perhaps further entrench the status quo.

Altogether, more than 100 written comments have now been submitted to the EPA on both rules. In raw number of comments submitted, the industrial interest groups and environmental health advocates are currently nearly equally divided. [This could change as more comments are posted to the EPA online docket for the risk evaluation rule.] There are very few comments from apparently unaffiliated citizens, all submitted anonymously. But this is where the parity ends.

Will EPA limit or expand how exposures are considered?

Among the most striking differences between environmental health advocates and industry groups is how they would like EPA to assess chemical exposures. The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on the information needed to adequately protect children, reminding the EPA that “Children are not little adults.” In comments to which more than three dozen environmental, health and labor advocacy groups signed on, the EPA was urged to protect fence-line communities. In its comments, Alaska Community Action on Toxics highlighted the importance of how EPA will consider Arctic and other disproportionately exposed communities.

Meanwhile, various industry groups, including the Consumer Specialty Product Association (CSPA) expressed concern about a broad interpretation of the law’s direction to specially consider those who may be most vulnerable to chemical exposures. In its comments, the CSPA asks the EPA to clarify what the law’s means by describing these groups “potentially exposed” and how that differs from “an actual exposure.” Similarly, the International Fragrance Association North America asked that EPA find “some reasonable potential for greater risk” when considering susceptible populations, rather than simply considering those who are more exposed than others. This slicing and dicing could create obstacles for the EPA’s consideration of communities with heavy toxic exposures if it means having to prove individuals’ personal risk factors and specific exposure levels – rather than looking at a community as a whole.

Another is the scope of science they want the agency to use in prioritizing and evaluating chemicals. The balance of industry and academic science appears to be shaping up as an area of contention, as noted in comments from the Endocrine Society. So does the potential confidentiality of information industry submits to EPA. The American Chemistry Council wants to EPA to explain how it will “protect confidential information during the prioritization process.”

Yet another is various industry groups’ focus on individual chemicals they would like to see designated low priority. This contrasts with the request from numerous environmental health advocates that EPA evaluate groups of similar chemicals together to avoid the single chemical approach that has facilitated so-called “regrettable substitutions” – as has happened with flame retardants.

How will EPA consider highly hazardous chemicals used in manufacturing?

For example, when it comes to worker exposure, the Vinyl Institute has written to the EPA explaining that the primary chemicals used to make vinyl – ethylene chloride, a neurotoxin and potential carcinogen and vinyl chloride monomer, a known human carcinogen – “should be considered as industrial intermediates, with little to no widespread public exposure.” The implication is that given existing regulation of these substances, these chemicals shouldn’t rise to the level of high priority under the Lautenberg Act.

On the other hand, the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) in its comments says:

“In considering chemical intermediates, it is important to consider the potential for occupational or public exposure during accidents or process malfunctions. Experience has shown that it is important not to assume an absence of exposure potential. For example, methyl isocyanate, a source of severe toxic exposures in the Bhopal disaster, is used as a chemical intermediate for the production of carbamate insecticides and herbicides.”

And the AFL-CIO points out that workers

“often are exposed to chemicals earlier in the supply chain” and are “are known for experiencing sentinel exposures because they often are the first to be exposed to a chemical, to higher levels of a chemical and throughout the duration of their working lives.”

The EPA, wrote the union, must

“consider occupational factors that make working populations susceptible to toxicity” throughout its chemical prioritization and evaluation process, “not simply consider occupational uses after chemicals are selected based only on non-occupational factors.”

Occupational diseases caused by chemical exposures, notes the AFL-CIO, “are responsible for more than 50,000 deaths and 190,000 illnesses each year.”

The public will have another chance to weigh in after the EPA releases these proposed rules, which Congress directed EPA to issue by mid-December.