EDF Health

EPA Should Address Cumulative Risks from New Chemicals

Names of blog authors: Maria Doa, PhD, Sr. Director, Chemicals Policy, and Lariah Edwards, PhD, Associate Research Scientist, Columbia University

What’s Happening? EPA’s current safety assessments of new chemicals proposed for market entry often fall short of effectively protecting all members of the public from risk because they don’t consider that we may be exposed to closely related chemicals that cause similar harms.

Recent Example: EPA proposed rules requiring notification of significant new uses for a group of new chemicals. Two of these chemicals, known as trimellitate esters, are very closely related, and would be expected to cause very similar harms and have very similar uses—so that people exposed to one chemical would likely be exposed to the other. Despite this, EPA did not consider the chemicals together or even use the information it had on one to inform its understanding of the safety of the other.

This doesn’t make sense.

Even though EPA said that one chemical was intended to be used as a lubricant and the other as a plasticizer (a chemical that makes plastics more flexible), it is likely that both could be used as a plasticizer or a lubricant. They may be used together or turn up in similar consumer products, such as a car’s dashboard. Further, both chemicals are very closely related to yet another plasticizer used in the auto industry, but it appears that EPA considered these nearly interchangeable chemicals in isolation from one another.

Items that require plasticizers for production. They include seats in cars, rain boots, a garden hose, medical gloves, an exercise ball, and rolls of wallpaper.

In fact, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), EPA is required to identify such “reasonably foreseen uses,” such as ending up in the same product.

Why It Matters: Evaluating chemicals in isolation likely underestimates the exposures and risks workers, consumers, and frontline communities face. Doing so also fails to make use of all the best available science, since information on each of these two chemicals (as well as the one already being used) could inform the safety determination for the other.

Considering the combined risks from similar chemicals is not new. EPA is already doing this for another group of closely related chemicals—phthalates. Phthalates have long been widely used in a range of consumer products and are detected in almost all our bodies. Phthalates are known to impact male reproductive health. EPA is joining the ranks of other federal agencies that have considered the cumulative risks they pose.

Our Take: EPA should not stop at phthalates. They can and should be incorporating cumulative approaches from the very beginning of a chemical’s regulatory life. Considering the impact of combined exposures does not need to be complicated and EPA could make such a consideration without much extra effort.

EPA can take a first step toward doing this by considering the potential for cumulative risks when finalizing its regulation on the significant new uses for these two new closely related chemicals.

Go Deeper: Read EDF’s response to EPA’s proposed new SNURs. And check out our Cumulative Risk Assessment Framework.

Also posted in Health Science, Industry Influence, Public Health, TSCA / Comments are closed

How toxic is oilfield wastewater? New paper highlights gaps in our understanding.

This post originally was published on the Energy Exchange Blog.

By Cloelle Danforth and Nichole Saunders.

Jennifer McPartland contributed to this post.

Collaborative research is a critical element for identifying unforeseen risks associated with using the oil industry’s wastewater outside the oilfield. That’s the recommendation of a new peer-reviewed paper accepted this week in the Journal of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (IEAM).

The paper comes at a crucial moment for the oil and gas industry, which generates some 900 billion gallons of salty, chemical-filled water (also called produced water) each year. Traditionally, companies dispose of this wastewater deep underground where it is less likely to cause contamination. But economics and water scarcity are forcing questions about other ways to treat, reuse and even repurpose this wastewater. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will release a report very soon that could make it more common for companies to discharge their wastewater into rivers and streams.

The IEAM paper outlines the conclusions of a multi-day toxicity workshop where experts from the oil and gas industry, academia, government and the environmental community collectively identified key knowledge gaps associated with this waste stream and determined tools, technologies and methods needed to help close those gaps.

Read More »

Also posted in Health Science, Public Health / Tagged | Comments are closed

Sensors and electronic health records reveal block-by-block traffic air pollution health disparities among the elderly in Oakland

Dr. Ananya Roy is a Health Scientist

Many public heath efforts, thankfully, focus on the youngest among us. We fight for a clean environment and healthy future for our kids. However, it is easy to forget that pollution affects us in every stage of life and its insidious health effects accumulate over time and can result in disease and disability.

Older people already have higher rates of disease and are highly vulnerable to air pollution, because they have been breathing for 70, 80, or 90 years. The effects of air pollution among the elderly provide insights that help us solve problems that can benefit the whole population.

Senior citizens have become the largest and fastest-growing segment of the population. By 2030 one in five Americans will be 65 and older, a demographic shift that influences everything from consumer behavior to health-care costs. Further, grandparents play a critical role in the success of families and the next generation – both emotionally and physically. It is estimated that for approximately 4.9 million families with children, the grandparent is the main breadwinner.

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Also posted in Emerging Science, Emerging Testing Methods, Health Policy, Health Science / Tagged , | Comments are closed

Toxic Exposures: 10 Americans expose the toxic chemicals in our environment

Every day we are exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals we can’t see —chemicals used in everything from the clothes we wear to the lotions we use and even the couch we sit on. Synthetic chemicals are used to make 96% of products in the United States. Yet scientific research continues to link chemicals in common use to health effects like cancer, infertility, and asthma.

EDF selected 10 individuals across the country to wear a novel wristband technology designed to detect chemicals in their environment for one week – including Gordon, Karen, and Averi.

 

Gordon is a lieutenant for the Memphis Fire Department. Gordon’s wristband detected 16 chemicals, including gamma-chlordane, a pesticide that has been banned in the U.S. since the 1980s, and 3,4-dichlorophenyl isocyanate, a “chemical intermediate,” which is reportedly used exclusively for chemical manufacturing processes. While there were no fires to fight the week he wore the wristband, Gordon wondered if he came into contact with these chemicals from a site visit to a location that formerly housed chemical stockpiles, his local auto repair shop, the nearby highway – or even his fire suit.

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Also posted in Emerging Testing Methods / Tagged | Comments are closed

A full month after West Virginia spill, many questions linger … along with the chemical’s distinctive odor

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

Today marks exactly a month since what is now said to be 10,000 gallons of “crude MCHM” – mixed with what was later found to have included other chemicals – spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, contaminated 1,700 miles of piping in the water distribution system for nine counties, and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of the state’s residents. 

Despite declining levels of the chemical in the water being fed into the distribution system, late this past week five area schools were closed due to detection of the distinctive licorice-like odor of MCHM and multiple reports of symptoms such as eye irritation, nausea and dizziness among students and staff.

The latest sampling data (for February 7 and 8) at locations such as area fire hydrants and hospitals and at schools shows that MCHM is at non-detect levels (<10 parts per billion) in most samples, but the chemical is still being detected in a minority of the samples despite extensive flushing.  Despite repeated calls to do so, officials appear to have yet to conduct any sampling of taps in residents’ homes.

This past week also featured a press conference by state and federal officials seeking to explain their response to the spill (a video of the entire press conference is available in four parts here; it’s worth watching).  [UPDATE 3/29/14:  As this link no longer works, here are updated links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of the press conference.]

Today’s Charleston Gazette features the latest in a long series of outstanding front-line reports by Ken Ward, Jr., and his colleagues, who have closely followed every twist and turn of both the spill and the government’s response to it.  Today’s article makes clear the extent to which federal officials were winging it in the hours and days after the spill was discovered as they rushed to set a “safe” level for MCHM in tap water.

In this post I’ll delve a little deeper into CDC’s rush to set the “safe” level and the many ways in which CDC inadequately accounted for major data gaps and uncertainties.  I’ll end by saying what I think CDC should have done instead.  Read More »

Also posted in Health Policy, Health Science / Tagged , , | Read 2 Responses

Should we be holding our breath waiting for more information on risks of the chemical spilled in West Virginia?

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

A hearing held yesterday by the West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources created quite a stir, when a witness – West Virginia Environmental Quality Board vice-chairman Scott Simonton – said that the human carcinogen formaldehyde had been detected in several water samples drawn from a Charleston, WV, restaurant, and that people in the area affected by the January 9 spill could be expected to have inhaled the chemical, which he identified as a likely breakdown product of the spilled material, crude MCHM.  See stories in the Charleston Gazette and USA Today.

State officials and the West Virginia American Water company were quick to call Simonton’s claims “unfounded” and “misleading and irresponsible,” respectively.  The controversy led even the American Chemistry Council – which has laid low ever since the spill – to quickly issue its first statement related to the spill through its Formaldehyde Panel.

While experts are noting that data are insufficient to identify the spill as the source of any formaldehyde detected in the water samples, this new kerfuffle does point to yet another major data gap on crude MCHM.

The one part-per-million (1 ppm) “safe” level state and federal officials set was based on limited data from studies in which rats were exposed to crude or pure MCHM through oral ingestionAbsolutely no data are available on the chemical with respect to exposure through inhalation.  Yet officials did not hesitate to tell residents the 1 ppm level would be safe not only for drinking the water, but also for bathing and showering.

(It’s curious that the Eastman Chemical Company apparently performed no inhalation studies on crude or pure MCHM, given that Eastman said its motivation for the studies it did perform was to understand risks to workers in industrial settings, and its safety data sheet for crude MCHM prominently notes the potential for health concerns for workers from inhalation.)

[UPDATE 1/31/14:  This morning, Eastman posted an updated version of its Q&A document on its website (linked to in the above paragraph), and took down the earlier version.  Here is the original version, the updated version dated 1/31/14, and a redline comparison of the two versions.]

Clearly the material that spilled is volatile – that’s why people can smell it.  Taking a hot shower in such water means that people would clearly be exposed via inhalation of the vapor; how much exposure would occur has not been ascertained.  But in the absence of any data as to toxicity of the chemical via inhalation, there is simply no scientific basis on which to say or imply that showering in water contaminated at 1 ppm level was OK.

Chemicals can be more or less toxic by inhalation than by ingestion, with one study finding inhalation to be the more toxic route for half of the chemicals examined and oral ingestion to be the more toxic route for the other half.  Benzene, for example, is estimated to be several hundred times more toxic by inhalation than by ingestion, while inhalation of chloroform is estimated to be about 25-fold lower in toxicity than it is by ingestion.

What such comparisons indicate is that extrapolating from data on oral toxicity to predict inhalation toxicity – which is effectively what government officials did in this case – is about as accurate as flipping a coin.

Also posted in Health Policy, Health Science / Tagged , , , | Read 3 Responses