EDF Health

Top takeaways from The Intercept’s investigation into Trump’s toxic rollbacks

Regulatory decisions by federal agencies in Washington often feel distant – bureaucrats moving paper in ways that don’t matter to regular people. But a devastating new story by reporter Sharon Lerner of The Intercept makes clear just how awful the Trump administration’s actions on chemical safety have been for average Americans.

Lerner shows that the Trump EPA has repeatedly bowed to industry lobbyists to allow dangerous chemicals to stay on or enter the market with little or no restrictions.

EPA’s actions are not abstract bureaucratic events to Angela Ramirez, who was diagnosed with breast cancer after years of living and working “near two facilities that were emitting a cancer-causing chemical called ethylene oxide.” EPA scientists knew “that exposure to ethylene oxide caused elevated rates of tumors in the brain, lungs, uterus, and lymph systems” – but under the Trump administration, following pressure from an industry trade group, EPA decided not to follow its own science deciding whether to limit the chemical.

Lerner reports that the Trump administration, stacked with political appointees who have worked, lobbied or advocated for the chemical, tobacco, and coal industries, has been systematically undermining EPA’s ability to use the best science and get the best expert advice to protect families. They’ve been attacking programs like the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, which provides evidenced-based analysis to the government to make public health decisions.

From Texas to Delaware and across the country, Lerner shows the impact of an administration that seems entirely focused on doing the bidding of industry, rather than pursing its legal mission to protect public health. They are doing so both broadly – weakening a new chemical safety law –and in a series of individual chemical assessment decisions. “Each time we see one of these assessments, there are ways in which the science has been played with,” EDF’s Lead Senior Scientist Richard Denison told Lerner.

To read more about what Lerner calls “Trump’s cancer gang” and their attacks on science and public health, check out her full article.

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Which faucets and fixtures have the lowest lead levels? California asks plumbing manufacturers.

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

Until California Water Board publishes its lists of fixtures that leach minimal lead, we recommend that schools and child care facilities routinely flush newly installed drinking water fixtures for several weeks and retest before allowing children to consume the water.

In November, the California Water Board took an important step that should benefit anyone seeking to buy a new faucet, drinking water fountain or other fixture – especially schools and child care facilities. The Board sent letters to more than 300 plumbing manufacturers and certifiers asking them to voluntarily provide information on fixtures that leach minimal lead. Specifically, it seeks to identify fixtures that meet lead leaching limits that are five times more protective than the current limits in the NSF/ANSI 61 standard.

The Board plans to make the compiled responses publicly available and encourage the 14,000 licensed child care centers in the state to buy new fixtures from those on the list when water testing indicates the fixture should be replaced. We anticipate that the Board will utilize the list to identify fixtures to purchase through a $5 million grant program the California State General Legislature established when it enacted AB-2370 last year. The funds are designed to help licensed child care facilities meet the state’s new mandated water testing and remediation program.

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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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