Changes for the better: EPA looks out for workers in revised risk finding for HBCD

By Samantha Liskow, Lead Counsel, Health

EPA has started to fulfill its promise to take another look at many of the chemical risk findings made during the Trump Administration. First up was “HBCD,” a collection of flame retardants present in many goods, including building insulation, furniture, and electronics. In its revised risk determination for the chemical EPA proposed important changes that are needed to protect health and the environment and are required under TSCA, our main federal law on chemical safety.

We highlighted these positive steps in our comments to the agency and urged EPA to formalize these changes when it releases its final revised risk determination for HBCD and other chemicals undergoing reevaluation.

Here is a look at the changes EPA made:

  1. Looking out for workers. The agency has proposed to evaluate HBCD’s risk to workers without presuming workers are always wearing proper “personal protective equipment” (PPE) like gloves and respirators. This approach by EPA conforms with the reality that many workers do not always have full, or sometimes any, protective gear. In taking this step, EPA has reversed the dangerous and faulty Trump Administration practice of assuming that workers were protected with things like respirators, and then calculating workers’ risk from chemical exposures. EDF called out this practice time and again because it distorted EPA’s risk evaluations and minimized harms faced by workers who did not always don proper PPE. Now, EPA says it plans to consider PPE use and other worker protections only after it has determined what the potential risks to workers are, when deciding how to manage the unreasonable risks HBCD can pose in the workplace. When EPA moves to the risk management stage, we urge it not to rely on PPE as the primary way to protect workers. Rather, the agency should apply the widely accepted “hierarchy of controls,” and consider the most protective measures to mitigate workers’ risks, such as eliminating the chemical hazard.
  2. Identifying a chemical’s full risk. Another positive development: EPA is taking a “whole chemical” approach to evaluating HBCD’s risk. This holistic way of assessing risks from all uses of a chemical together is required under TSCA and embraces the reality that a combination of chemical uses may pose an unreasonable risk to human health, even if the risk from one type of use by itself does not. This is particularly true for vulnerable subpopulations – which TSCA mandates that EPA focus on – that are susceptible to harm from even low levels of exposure to a chemical or are exposed to the chemical more than the general population. EPA’s whole chemical approach is an important departure from the use-by-use approach of the Trump era, where it plucked out individual chemical applications in isolation and issued “no unreasonable risk” orders for those specific uses. We hope EPA’s adoption of a whole chemical approach to HBCD marks the end of such problematic slicing and dicing and brings a permanent and more scientifically sound approach to evaluating and regulating a chemical’s full risk.
  3. Addressing risks early in the lifecycle of the chemical. Once EPA finds that a chemical like HBCD poses unreasonable risk to people’s health or the environment, it moves on to “risk management” – in other words, taking regulatory action to mitigate these risks. Here, EPA has the authority and responsibility to use a wide menu of options to deal with the risks. In its revised risk determination proposed for HBCD, EPA has correctly stated that it can and should address activities that can lead to unreasonable risks throughout the chemical’s lifecycle. For example, EPA has the ability to regulate “upstream” activities, like the chemical’s distribution in commerce, to address the “downstream” drivers of unreasonable risks, like consumers’ use of a product that contains the chemical. We applaud this health and environment-focused understanding of TSCA, and look forward to seeing EPA apply it to its upcoming risk management regulations of HBCD and other chemicals that pose unreasonable risks.

Finally, we note that this week EPA made similar changes in a revised risk determination proposed for another chemical evaluated during the Trump Administration – Pigment Violet 29. We applaud these steps and encourage the agency to incorporate similar positive actions in future risk determinations.

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  1. Mark
    Posted March 9, 2022 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    This is truly game-changing. It not only reverses the dangers the industry-friendly Trump EPA implemented but pushes the safety of the public to higher standards. Many thanks to EDF and the hard work of the early pioneers such as Richard Dennison. Let’s hope the 2024 administration, whoever it is, continues these new steps.

  2. Tony Tweedale
    Posted March 10, 2022 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Not “game-changing” by EPA, if they continue to dismiss over 99% of all toxicity publications that they find, saying, “we don’t have the time/resources” to evaluate do many hundreds/thousands of published toxicity findings; so instead we will use these handful/dozens of “important” findings that we relied on in previous risk assessments of the chemical” …and if no one works to force them to actually evaluate what academia finds, the first and all-important step. Many, not all, of EPA’s preferred “important” findings are from industry, using test methods that are grossly insensitive to find low dose toxicity.

    A rough screen for toxicity findings on HBCD on Pubmed (alone) today returns 513 hits. In my experience, roughly 45% to 60% of these will turn out to be toxicity findings (all types of studies); and certainly (given its EDC-ness) a handful of low dose ones in vertebrates. Continuing to prioritize use/release/exposures, while ignoring hazards, wont change anything. I’ve predicted that before.