EPA’s latest move to deflect criticism of its TSCA risk evaluations: Muzzle its science advisors

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

Readers of this blog know that Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has voiced strong opposition to a number of decisions made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that aim to limit the risks it finds when evaluating the safety of chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

These decisions include:

  • excluding from its analysis known human and environmental exposures to a chemical, based on unwarranted assumptions that those exposures are adequately managed by other statutes;
  • claiming without support that workers are protected by assuming universal and universally effective use of personal protective equipment throughout chemical supply chains and the adequacy of OSHA regulations that either don’t apply or are decades out of date;
  • arbitrarily loosening EPA’s longstanding risk standards governing when cancer incidences are deemed unacceptably high; and
  • choosing not to exercise its enhanced authorities under TSCA to require submission of robust information on chemicals’ hazard and exposures, resorting instead to questionable assumptions and relying on voluntarily submitted industry data that are unrepresentative or of poor or indeterminate quality.

Through these decisions, EPA increases the likelihood that it will either not find unreasonable risk and thereby avoid regulating the chemical, or if that can’t be accomplished, find risks that are low enough that it can impose few restrictions, thereby burdening industry as little as possible.

In response to each of these decisions, EPA has received dozens of highly critical comments on its draft risk evaluations from state and local governments, labor and health groups, environmental NGOs and members of the scientific community.  And in the first several peer reviews conducted by its Scientific Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC), many of the scientists voiced quite similar concerns during the committee’s public meetings (as of yet, final peer review reports have not been issued).

Rather than address the problems, EPA has adopted a new tactic to stifle the criticism, one that is quite chilling (literally and figuratively):  It is telling the SACC that these issues are off-limits to the peer reviewers because they represent policy decisions that are beyond the charge given to the SACC.  This is beyond the pale, for several reasons. 

First, such issues fall squarely within the SACC’s charge.  EPA’s own “charge questions” provided to the SACC to guide its most recent peer review of 1-bromopropane (1-BP) specifically (and appropriately) call on the SACC to comment on the “assumptions, uncertainties and data limitations in the methodology used to assess risks from 1-BP.”

Second, it is absolutely the SACC’s role and responsibility to comment on the scientific consequences of EPA’s decisions that directly affect its characterization of exposure, hazard, and risk.  Such scientific input is especially vital here, as most of EPA’s decisions clearly lead to underestimations of chemicals’ risks – to the environment, the general population, workers, and vulnerable subpopulations.

Third, with respect to the adequacy of the information EPA relies on, the agency has recently made an additional claim to the SACC:  that EPA has no choice but to use the data it has readily at hand, however limited they are.   In fact, EPA has had – and has made – a choice every single day during the entire 3 years its risk evaluations have been underway.  When Congress expanded EPA’s mandate to conduct comprehensive assessments of chemicals’ safety, it understood EPA would need to obtain much more information on those chemicals than is currently available.  That is why the 2016 amendments to TSCA significantly strengthened EPA’s authority to require the reporting and development of chemical information.   And all along the way, EDF and many other commenters have repeatedly identified the data gaps and urged the agency to use those authorities to fill them, to no avail.

EPA’s choice under this administration has been stark:  It has chosen not to use that authority even a single time.  As a result, EPA lacks the information needed to conduct scientifically sound risk evaluations, which has implications for EPA’s future as well as current chemical safety reviews.  The SACC can and must clearly identify the resultant deficiencies and uncertainties in EPA’s chemical risk evaluations.

Sadly, EPA’s shift in tactics is in keeping with this administration’s general attitude toward science.  It is but the latest in a series of moves to limit the scientific information and scientific advice that EPA can obtain and use to make decisions.


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