(Beyond Pesticides, September 15, 2011) Bowing to pressure from the chemical industry, the administration of President Barack Obama recently blocked a new and desperately needed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) review of chemical health hazards which was developed under the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), according to Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In his blog, Mr. Rosenberg reported on September 13 that, “[T]he White House worked behind the scenes to stop EPA from issuing a hazard assessment of the cancer-causing chemical TCE [produced through the IRIS program] — and is working to effectively shut down the EPA’s program for assessing the hazards of chemicals — the basis for setting and updating health standards for drinking water, air quality, and clean-up of contaminated soil.” He notes that the move was obscured as it fell on the same day as the widely reported and controversial decision by the administration to withdraw a new EPA health standard for ozone smog.
A chemical health review under IRIS apparently provided the groundwork for the establishment of a new health standard for the carcinogenic trichloroethylene (TCE), but the findings yielded no action. The existing standard for the substance was last updated more than 20 years ago, in 1989. In a May 2008 story in our Daily News, we cite an April 10, 2008 EPA decision to revamp IRIS. The program was severely criticized by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) in a March 2008 report, Chemical Assessments: Low Productivity and New Interagency Review Process Limit the Usefulness and Credibility of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (GAO-08-440). While EPA said it would consider the report’s recommendations, GAO said in its 2008 Congressional testimony, Toxic Chemicals: EPA’s New Assessment Process Will Increase Challenges EPA Faces in Evaluating and Regulating Chemicals (GAO-08-743T), “EPA’s new process is largely the same as the draft GAO evaluated, and some key changes also are likely to further exacerbate the productivity and credibility concerns GAO identified.” It was thought that the Obama White House and EPA were intent on reversing this situation and on track to inject science and transparency into decisions needed to protect health and the environment.
The issue, however, is more significant than the immediate effects of the loss of this particular hazard assessment. The IRIS program is responsible for evaluating a significant range of chemicals to which Americans are exposed in their everyday lives. Although the program’s website states that it “does not currently develop updated assessments for registered pesticides,” it does conduct new assessments for chemicals that are used as pesticide active ingredients which also have other, non-pesticide applications, of which there are many.
Interference in EPA’s scientific review process severely hinders the agency’s ability to ensure public safety through regulating hazardous substances and is deeply troubling to public interest advocates, especially as the backlog of substances waiting to be reviewed continues to grow. The loss of the ability of EPA to review substances and assess dangers through IRIS would result in serious gaps in our knowledge of how chemicals affect human health and the environment. While chemicals, when used as pesticides, remain subject to review under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) by EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, those evaluations would only examine the chemicals’ potential dangers according to the use patterns of pesticides, and would not take into account dangers presented by any other non-pesticidal uses of the chemical. The IRIS program fills this hole by examining chemicals with regard to a range of exposure routes and health hazards.
TCE became notorious as the subject of a widely reported case of water contamination in Woburn, MA. Over the course of several decades, residents complained about an increase in birth defects and childhood leukemia throughout the area. The story later became the subject of a book, A Civil Action, which was made into a high profile movie about the residents’ case against the corporate polluters.
TCE has also been implicated in serious widespread contamination of drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result of TCE and other volatile organic compounds being dumped near drinking water wells over a long period of time at the base, many former service members and their families were exposed to high levels of contaminants. Abnormally high numbers of former base residents have contracted serious illnesses, including cancer, and some have sought damages against the military for compensation.
There is currently an ongoing effort to reform the process of EPA’s review of toxic substances, which is governed under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S. 847) was introduced in the U.S. Senate to work toward this goal. However, many analysts are concerned that the bill’s continued exclusive reliance on risk assessment, with its serious uncertainties and lack of attention to least-toxic alternatives, allows unnecessary toxic chemical use and undermines a precautionary approach.
Beyond Pesticides has long called for alternatives assessment in environmental rulemaking that creates a regulatory trigger to adopt alternatives and drive the market to go green. The alternatives assessment approach differs most dramatically from risk assessment in rejecting uses and exposures deemed acceptable under risk assessment calculations, but unnecessary because of the availability of safer alternatives.
Any reforms, however, to health and safety regulations would still rely on the administration to implement the safeguards that agencies such as EPA develop. A White House that is unwilling to act on new science in order to safeguard the public is not one that has the best interests of the American people at heart and presents a serious impediment to achieving effective chemical safeguards.
This latest move to block regulations follows another move aimed at appeasing big business, which was recently criticized by two U.S. Senators. Following repeated meetings with representatives from corporations such as Dow Chemical and ExxonMobile, the White House agreed to withhold adding certain substances from a list of “chemicals of concern,” despite EPA having submitted its recommendation to add the substances more than a year ago.
TAKE ACTION: Write to President Obama and to your U.S. Senators and Representatives telling them that the only way out of the economic crisis is by working for the establishment of a green economy. The need to sacrifice health for jobs is a false premise. Both can move forward together; and both must if we are to have a safe and secure future.