Re-visioning TSCA after the Trump years: A series

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

Part 1 of a 4-part series – see Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 here

It wasn’t that long ago, June 2016, when there was hope that our nation was at last embarking on the enormous task of reinvigorating and greatly strengthening our chemical safety system, 40 years after original passage of the moribund Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act by huge bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress seemed to bode well for robust implementation of the law by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Even the affected industry had accepted the reforms as essential to restoring public confidence in our federal system (hoping thereby also to stem the rising tide of actions by state governments, retailers, and others to fill the void left by EPA’s inability to ensure the safety of chemicals and products).

We have an opportunity to rethink how the law could and should be used to advance a broader vision of greater health and environmental protection for all people.

Labor and health and environmental public interest communities saw an opportunity to use the new TSCA to drive more thorough assessments of chemicals’ risks.  The failure of our risk assessment-based regulatory system to address the multiple sources of exposure to a chemical affecting many different groups of people had long been viewed as a fundamental flaw of the old law.  Fixing that flaw isn’t, unfortunately, how the last four years have gone.

As we look to the future, there is a pressing need to course-correct on TSCA implementation.  But there is also an opportunity to rethink how the law could and should be used to advance a broader vision of greater health and environmental protection for all people.  This series of blog posts will explore that potential.

But we must start with a brief look back at the damage done. 

What went wrong

With the entry of the Trump administration in early 2017, the chemical industry’s commitment to supporting a stronger national program evaporated almost overnight as they pivoted to grabbing short-term gain from the new political landscape.  A chemical industry executive appointed to lead the TSCA office quickly dismantled the initial steps the prior administration had taken toward building a stronger federal program.

Over the next four years, Trump political appointees – aided and abetted by the industry and its legion of law firms and consultants – wreaked havoc on TSCA’s potential to improve chemical safety, generate more and better information on chemical risks, advance science, protect public and worker health, and reduce health inequities tied to chemicals.  Instead of the broad risk reviews of both existing and new chemicals that the new TSCA envisions and mandates, the Trump EPA methodically broke up reviews of individual chemicals into as many separate pieces as possible, and then ignored or dismissed risks from as many of those pieces as possible.

To cite a few examples:  The risk reviews divided people into the general population, consumers, and workers – and the astounding assumption was made that no one belonged to more than one category.  The glaringly obvious possibility that people might be exposed to a chemical at work, as well as through products they used at home, as well as by breathing air or drinking water contaminated with the chemical – well, the Trump EPA simply declared those scenarios beyond the scope of its review.  It also ignored the heightened risks faced by communities situated near sources of chemical release or contamination, which are often communities of color or low wealth. The agency falsely asserted that chemicals’ released to air, water and land posed no risk because of, or even in the absence of any, regulation under other federal laws.  And despite the new TSCA’s clear mandate that EPA specifically protect workers, the Trump EPA went to tortuous lengths to dismiss or grossly understate the risks they face.

An opportunity to change course

The Biden-Harris administration has strongly stated its commitments to restoring science and science integrity to EPA and other agencies, and to tackling the environmental injustices and health inequities that plague our society.  These commitments provide opportunities not only to course-correct on TSCA implementation, but to rethink how the law could and should be used to advance a broader vision, one that leads to more comprehensive approaches to identifying, assessing and mitigating the risks chemicals pose so as to improve the health and environment of everyone.

The past four years wreaked considerable damage on TSCA’s implementation and there is a clear need for the Biden EPA to take steps to undo as much of that damage as possible and sharply depart from the legally and scientifically flawed approaches taken by the Trump EPA.  But even as it works to right the ship, EPA’s new leadership – and the nation – can’t afford to lose the opportunities to advance a more robust and holistic vision for this law, the seeds of which are embedded deeply in some of its core provisions.

This blog series will touch on several aspects of TSCA that provide a mandate, authority, or serious opportunity to:

  • Comprehensively assess and mitigate chemicals’ risks in a manner that surmounts the limitations of other laws that can at best address only a small slice of exposures to a chemical;
  • Better protect those at greater risk by addressing the impacts of chemical exposures on the health and well-being of groups of people more highly exposed or susceptible to adverse health outcomes, in order to help tackle longstanding health inequities; and
  • Address cumulative impacts by beginning to account for multiple stressors – personal, socioeconomic, and environmental – that can exacerbate a chemical’s adverse effects.

In the next installments of this series to be posted over this week, we will delve deeper into each of these opportunities.  Stay tuned!

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