Getting chemical safety back on track 5 years after TSCA reform

Five years ago, President Obama signed into law the Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which overhauled the country’s chemical safety law to better protect people from toxic chemicals.

In a welcome change to the dismal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform anniversaries during the Trump administration, this year we are able to highlight some signs of progress we have seen from the Biden EPA that are getting chemical safety back on track.

Though significant challenges remain and lots of work lies ahead to repair the damage done by the former administration and advance a broader vision of health protection for everyone, here are five ways the Biden administration has started to turn things around on chemical safety:

1. Naming leaders committed to scientific integrity and public health protection

With Michael Regan at the helm of EPA, the agency is already miles ahead of where it stood in the last administration. The critical position for overseeing TSCA implementation at EPA is the leader of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Fortunately, a chemist with deep experience on TSCA and other chemical issues from her time on Capitol Hill, Dr. Michal Freedhoff, has been confirmed for the role.

Both Regan and Freedhoff have made strong statements supporting a return to scientific integrity and transparency – which are critical needs to building back trust. Dr. Freedhoff specifically cited how the Trump White House forced EPA scientists to weaken their assessment of the dangerous chemical trichloroethylene, an egregious example of political interference in science-based decision-making.

2. Closing loopholes and committing to strengthen the new chemicals program

EDF has written extensively about the illegal and private interest-driven approach the former administration took to its reviews of new chemicals coming to market. This March, EPA announced that it is conducting a thorough review of these policies and procedures and highlighted immediate changes it has made to restore and realign the program with TSCA. In the President’s budget, the administration committed itself to restoring its reviews of new chemicals to “the approach taken immediately following enactment of the 2016 amendments.” These changes are critical to ensure new chemicals that present potential risks to workers, the public, or the environment are not allowed on the market without adequate restrictions.

The agency also announced that it will no longer allow new PFAS, chemicals that build up in the body and environment and are linked to a host of serious health effects, to enter commerce after only a rushed, cursory review. This is a promising step, but EDF and other advocates are asking the EPA to permanently close this and other regulatory loopholes that companies continue to use to get new PFAS quickly to market.

3. Refusing to use the Trump EPA’s deeply flawed approach to reviewing scientific studies of chemical risks

The TSCA systematic review approach developed by the Trump EPA was deeply flawed and deviated from scientific best practices in many ways – something that was recently affirmed by a highly critical National Academies’ peer review report. EPA had used its approach to exclude or downplay evidence of risk posed by high-concern chemicals, paving the way to allow exposures to such chemicals to continue unregulated.

In response to the report, EPA announced that it would cease using the former administration’s approach and committed to developing a method that reflects the National Academies’ recommendations. We look forward to seeing the new approach as it is critical to ensuring risk evaluations are scientifically robust and protect public health.

4. Committing to improve transparency and public access to chemical information

EPA has announced that it is enhancing its Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a resource that reports the amounts of several hundred toxic chemicals released by industrial plants across the US, to increase information access and advance environmental justice. These changes will include new requirements for facilities to report information on more chemicals — including chemicals prioritized for review under TSCA and those of greater concern to fenceline communities living near polluting facilities. The agency also plans to make changes to the TRI to provide demographic information about such communities useful in assessing the elevated risks they face.

The public has the right to know about the chemicals in our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities, and we are glad to see the EPA take steps to enhance access to that information, especially for those at greater risk.

5. Advancing the scientific assessment of cancer-causing formaldehyde

After languishing for years due to flagrant interference by conflicted political appointees, the assessment of formaldehyde by EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) is again moving forward. IRIS assessments are the gold standard in identifying and characterizing hazards from chemical exposure. Restarting this assessment is a strong early indicator of the administration’s commitment to restoring scientific integrity and health protection.

And because formaldehyde is one of the high priority chemicals now under review by the agency’s TSCA office, the IRIS assessment can and should serve as the backbone of the TSCA program’s evaluation of formaldehyde’s risks.

Tell EPA Administrator Regan: Fully implement the chemical safety law to protect communities across the country from toxic chemicals in our air, water, and products.

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