EDF Health

Time for a safer food supply: The legal challenge to FDA’s GRAS Rule

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director, Environmental Defense Fund

This blog initially was published as a guest column in Chemical Watch on September 9, 2019. After publication, FDA filed its reply brief to the plaintiff’s August 23, 2019 brief. The briefings are complete and the case awaits a decision by the judge.

Litigation is a time-consuming and often inefficient means to fix a broken regulatory system. However, when there is a fundamental disagreement about a regulatory agency’s responsibilities under the law, it is an essential option. Such is the case with the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) exemption from the requirement for pre-market approval of food additives in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) interprets this exemption as allowing companies to determine whether a substance’s use is GRAS in secret without any notice to the agency.

Next year, I anticipate a federal district court will make a final decision on a lawsuit[1] challenging the FDA’s 2016 GRAS Rule that formalized the agency’s broad interpretation of the exemption and its narrow interpretation of its responsibilities under the FFDCA to “protect the public health by ensuring that . . . foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled . . . .” (21 U.S.C. §393(b)). It would come a decade after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, concluded that “FDA’s oversight process does not ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations.” The GRAS Rule does little to address the shortcomings described by GAO.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit asking the court to declare the GRAS Rule unlawful and vacate the rule. On August 23, we filed with the court our response to the agency’s brief on both parties’ motions for summary judgment. FDA is expected to file a reply in September. Based on these briefs, the court may order oral arguments before making a decision.

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Without a food safety overhaul for additives, the innovative food craze could spiral out of control

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

At an FDA-sponsored conference, EDF proposed a new path forward to ensure innovative food ingredients are safe by overhauling how food additives are regulated today.

Every day brings reports of new ingredients that food innovators around the world have developed to meet consumer demands for a healthier and more sustainable food supply. The innovations range from new ways to extract useful additives from existing sources such as algae to bioengineering to make novel ingredients like sweeteners or proteins that can be grown in a tank instead of on a farm.

At EDF, we encourage innovation that helps communities and the environment thrive, especially in the face of the threats posed by climate change. However, an innovator’s bold claims, especially those involving food safety, must be closely scrutinized before the additive hits the marketplace. Given the potential for harm to consumers, we cannot simply take a company’s assertion of safety at face value – there must be transparency and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must provide an independent review.

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EPA’s just-released methylene chloride draft risk evaluation: Some important context

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

After more than a month’s delay, EPA today released its draft risk evaluation for methylene chloride.  Running to 725 pages (not counting more than a dozen supplemental files), it will take some time to digest.  But here are some initial observations that provide context for those of you who will be looking closer.

First, methylene chloride is a very nasty chemical.  It has killed a lot of people.  It causes cancer.  Short- and long-term exposure to it is tied to liver effects, immune system effects, nervous system effects, and reproductive/developmental effects.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that EPA’s draft – even coming from an administration not known to be overly worried about the risks of chemicals – has found that most industrial, commercial and consumer uses of methylene chloride present unreasonable risks.

For example, EPA found that workers using methylene chloride-based paint strippers face high risks.  Of course, we knew that already:  EPA identified those risks more than five years ago, and proposed to ban those uses.  This EPA decided it had to do it all over again – which means that thousands of workers have continued to be unnecessarily exposed to this deadly chemical.  And it will be even more years before we get back to where we were before EPA took its mulligan.

So the good news is that EPA seems to be acknowledging that methylene chloride presents high enough risks to warrant regulation under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

The bad news is that EPA is dramatically underestimating the magnitude of methylene chloride’s risks – by pulling the same tricks it has for other chemicals among the first 10 it is evaluating under TSCA:

  • EPA once again ignores all exposures and risks to the general population by falsely assuming those exposures and risks are eliminated by actions it has taken or could take under other laws. That means ignoring over 4 million pounds of methylene chloride annually released to air, water and land.  See this backgrounder for the details and why this EPA assumption about methylene chloride is deeply flawed.
  • EPA once again grossly understates risks to workers:
    • EPA assumes that workers will always wear fully effective personal protective equipment (respirators and gloves) to make many of the risks it identifies go away – and to grossly understate the magnitude of the unreasonable risks it does find.
    • EPA once again finds a cancer risk to workers unreasonable only if it exceeds a level of 1 in 10,000 – which is 100 times higher a risk than warrants regulation under TSCA to protect workers and other vulnerable subpopulations.
    • For occupational non-users (ONUs), EPA has once again failed to identify unreasonable risks for the most highly exposed, and hence most vulnerable, workers unless it finds that the majority of workers also face unreasonable risks.

These are just a few initial observations based on our reading of EPA’s opus so far.

So while it’s somewhat encouraging that this new draft risk evaluation has found many more risks than previous drafts, we can already tell the draft falls far short of adequately describing the risks presented by methylene chloride.

Stay tuned.

Also posted in EPA, Health Policy, Health Science, Regulation, TSCA Reform, Worker Safety / Tagged , | Comments are closed

EDF joins court challenge of FDA’s refusal to ban use of perchlorate in food contact materials

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Today, EDF, represented by Earthjustice, joined with other public health advocates in filing a lawsuit to overturn the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) May 2017 decision, reaffirmed in April 2019 that allows the continued use of perchlorate[1], at concentrations up to 12,000 parts per million, in plastic packaging and processing equipment in contact with dry food. Perchlorate exposure is particularly dangerous for fetuses, infants, and young children, as it has been linked to developmental delays, reduced growth, and impaired learning capabilities. FDA relied on flawed reasoning while entirely ignoring important evidence developed by its own scientists revealing potentially serious risks resulting from ongoing use of perchlorate. We maintain that the intentional and unnecessary use of perchlorate in food contact materials should end.[2]

As with any litigation, we take this action reluctantly. We have long questioned FDA’s decisions that ignore evidence that endocrine disruptors like perchlorate can cause harm at levels the agency systematically dismisses as trivial. We have also pushed back on FDA’s decisions that allow toxic chemicals to be used in packaging and processing equipment that contact food ingredients multiple times from the farm to the grocery store shelf when the exposure estimate is based solely on the amount of the chemical that may migrate into food from the final product packaging. Agency assertions that its estimates are based on worst-case assumptions are misleading when they only consider a single contact. While FDA’s initial decision in November 2005 allowing the use of perchlorate-containing plastic raises all of these problems, the agency’s failure to address its own data and accompanying analysis by its own scientists that was published a decade later has left us with little choice but to act.

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Denver Water proposes innovative plan to remove an estimated 75,000 lead service lines in 15 years

Lindsay McCormick, is a Program Manager. Tom Neltner, J.D., is the Chemicals Policy Director.

Update (9/10/19): Denver Water is currently taking comment on its final proposal through October 10, 2019.  Denver Water will present feedback received to EPA and CDPHE. If you would like to weigh in, you can submit comments here.”

Yesterday, Denver Water’s board approved its proposed “Lead Reduction Program Plan” to fully replace the estimated 75,000 lead service lines (LSLs) in their system within 15 years.  The plan is an innovative solution that will remove the primary source of lead within Denver Water’s system, while avoiding the use of orthophosphate that can further exacerbate nutrient pollution problems in rivers, streams and oceans, an issue EDF’s Ecosystems team is working hard to solve.

As proposed, Denver Water would fund full replacement of LSLs through water rates, bonds and sales of new connections to the system, hydropower production and other sources rather than have individual property owners contribute.  In addition, the utility’s proposal to provide filters to residents until their LSLs are replaced represents a model other communities should consider based on the effectiveness of their ongoing pilot.  Before implementing the plan, Denver Water will need to receive approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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Why do we know so little about chemical exposures? Emerging technology could disrupt the status quo.

Lindsay McCormick is a Program Manager.

EDF report identifies emerging market for personal chemical exposure monitoring technologies through a first-of-its-kind analysis.

When I first started working at EDF in 2014, I learned a statistic that shocked me: We have human exposure data on less than 4% of the roughly half-million chemicals in commerce.[1] In other words, we know next to nothing about the vast majority of chemical exposures that people were experiencing on a daily basis.

Chemicals are found in nearly all commercial products and serve a foundational role in our economy. Yet this ubiquity comes with its downsides, as some chemicals are hazardous and can find their way into our environment and ultimately end up in our water, land, and air—and in our bodies. Exposure to certain chemi­cal substances have been linked to a variety of adverse health impacts, including reproductive harm, disruption of normal hormone activity, and impaired neurological development in children.

The lack of knowledge about chemical exposures poses a major problem: Without better information on exactly which chemicals individuals are exposed to every day, it is challenging to develop effective policies and interventions to reduce harmful exposures and protect health.

Disrupting the status quo

But what if anyone could use a simple home-delivered kit or wearable device to reveal the chemicals in their environment—and in their body? Such technologies could make the invisible visible—providing individuals, as well as policy makers, businesses, health professionals, and others, with critical information needed to accelerate reductions in the public’s exposure to hazardous chemicals.

In 2017, EDF pursued a Year of Innovation to better understand opportunities to advance the market for personal chemical exposure monitors (PCEMs) – with the ultimate goal of improving public health. As part of this effort, we conducted interviews and convened an expert workshop to identify bottlenecks in the development and use of such technologies.

We learned that a significant gap exists between the demand and promise of PCEM technologies and the current cost or scalability of many of the available technologies today. Experts noted that while there is significant qualitative or anecdotal evidence of demand, a quantitative understanding of the potential market for these technologies is needed to drive a robust market.

EDF took that lesson and embarked on a two-part study to fill this gap.

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