Under the Trump EPA, no risk to workers is too high to impede a new chemical’s unfettered entry into the market

Richard Denison, Ph.D.is a Lead Senior Scientist.

The Trump EPA’s understating of the risks to workers posed by both existing and new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has been a frequent topic for this blog.  This disturbing, illegal policy continues unabated and, if anything, has accelerated and expanded to outright dismissal of worker health concerns.

The Trump EPA’s blatant shirking of its clear responsibilities under TSCA to identify and mitigate the serious risks that chemicals present to workers – who are on the front lines of chemical exposures – surely constitutes one of its most egregious failings.

In its reviews of new chemicals, EPA now frequently identifies serious risks to workers that exceed its own risk benchmarks, often many times over.  How great are the exceedances EPA finds and ignores?  Our examination of recent cases, described below, reveals exceedances as high as 25,000-fold.  In other words, EPA has found and then dismissed worker exposures to new chemicals at levels as much as 25,000 times higher than it deems acceptable. That is not a typo:  In a very recent case EPA found a dermal risk of reproductive effects to workers that exceeded its own benchmark by a factor of 25,000.

Any reasonable new chemical review that identified excess risk would then impose conditions blocking or conditioning the market entry of these chemicals in a manner sufficient to mitigate the identified risks.  Indeed, that is exactly what TSCA requires EPA to do.

Instead, the Trump EPA over and over again clears these chemicals entirely, ignoring its own risk findings to assert that the chemicals are “not likely to present unreasonable risk.”  This has now been done for hundreds of new chemicals EPA has reviewed in the past two years.

To illustrate what EPA is doing, we examined the 29 new chemicals EPA found “not likely to present unreasonable risk” (“not likely” determinations) since the beginning of June of this year. 

These chemicals and their “not likely” determinations are listed here.  We have examined each determination document to construct a table – click here – that summarizes the risks EPA identified in these 29 cases and indicates whether or not the magnitude of the risks exceed EPA’s own benchmarks used to identify unreasonable risk.  The yellow-highlighted cells in the table show those exceedances, and display what EPA terms its “fold factor” – the number of times by which the identified risk level exceeds EPA’s benchmark.  In each case, EPA’s determination document states specifically:  “Risks were identified for workers for [X] effects via [Y] exposures … .”  [X] is what is listed in our table under the “Endpoint” column, while [Y] is dermal or inhalation.

Here are the overall findings:

  • For 19 of the 29 cases, the risks to workers EPA identified exceeded its own benchmarks for dermal or inhalation exposures, or both.
    • In 15 cases, EPA’s dermal risk benchmark was exceeded.
    • In 10 cases, EPA’s inhalation risk benchmark was exceeded.
    • In 6 cases, EPA’s dermal and inhalation risk benchmarks were both exceeded.
  • The magnitude of the exceedances was as follows:
    • The median “fold factor” (i.e., magnitude of exceedance) across the 15 dermal exceedances was 50-fold, ranging from 1.9 to 25,000.
    • The median “fold factor” across the 10 inhalation exceedances was 4-fold, ranging from 1.0 to 20.
  • For 21 of the 29 cases, EPA identified additional hazards the chemicals pose but it did not quantify the risk “due to a lack of dose-response for these hazards.”

EPA’s response to all of these quantified and unquantified risks it identified is the same in every single case.  EPA follows its presentation of the risks with a variation on this statement:

However, risks can be mitigated by the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including impervious gloves, eye protection, and respiratory protection. EPA expects that employers will require, and that workers will use appropriate PPE consistent with the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) prepared by the submitter, in a manner adequate to protect them.

This glib statement papers over numerous glaring inaccuracies and omissions about which we have blogged and submitted comments to EPA extensively.  To name just four:

  • SDSs do not pose any binding requirements on employers to provide and train their employees on the proper use of PPE.
  • The existence of an SDS provides no assurance that workers at downstream processing and use sites will be informed about and follow any PPE recommendations.
  • EPA’s determinations do not specify what type of PPE would be sufficient to mitigate the risks it has identified.
  • PPE is the option of last resort under the industrial hygiene hierarchy of controls.

The Trump EPA’s blatant shirking of its clear responsibilities under TSCA to identify and mitigate the serious risks that chemicals present to workers – who are on the front lines of chemical exposures – surely constitutes one of its most egregious failings.

This entry was posted in EPA, Health Policy, Industry Influence, Regulation, TSCA Reform, Worker Safety and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

2 Comments

  1. Greg Schweer-retired
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Richard, good article.

  2. Posted August 31, 2020 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Greg, for taking the time to read and respond! Best, Richard