EDF Health

Not goodbye, but see you later

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

After nearly 35 years at EDF, I am retiring this week.

While I have had the privilege of working on many things in my time at EDF, for the last 20+ years my main focus has been on the Toxic Substances Control Act: making the case for why reform was so badly needed; helping shape what that reform should look like; traversing every twist and turn on the long and winding road to get the Lautenberg Act finally enacted; and providing EPA with our advice on how to get strong and lawful implementation of the law off the ground.

I don’t know that any of us who worked so hard on all of the above imagined what a tragic turn all of that work would take with the arrival of the Trump administration.  They simply handed over the keys to the chemical industry and its bevy of law firms, trade associations, and consultants, who quickly shattered the fragile consensus and good will that had allowed the reform to happen, and then systematically undermined the intent of the law in a manner that actually made many things worse than before.  EDF’s and my role necessarily shifted to one of vociferous opposition, documenting and challenging how EPA political appointees were thwarting the law, science, and the agency’s mission to protect health and the environment, including those at greatest risk.

Considerable damage was done to EPA, including to its most valuable resource, the career staff.  Considerable time will be needed to right the ship.  I am hopeful about the corrective actions that have already been taken by new EPA leadership and what they are signaling is still to come.

It is vital not only that the damage be fixed, but also that EPA work to realize a broader vision for what TSCA can be and must do to fully account for and protect those most exposed or susceptible to chemical risks – including fenceline communities, workers, and children.  Earlier this year we published a series of posts to this blog titled “Re-visioning TSCA” that lays out some of our thinking about why and how this work should begin immediately.

Enormous tasks lie ahead.  EDF has had and will continue to have a strong team working on TSCA, and we will shortly be announcing a new member who will lead this work.

I plan to take a break and return at a later point to continue to advise our team on this important work.

Finally, a note about the EDF Health blog:  Our program started it in February 2008 to be able to weigh in and talk about our work back then to ensure the safety of nanomaterials.  Some 820 posts later, we now regularly address a range of issues we work on relating to chemicals and health.  We also strive to do more than just opine on the issues – often using the blog to present the results of our research and analysis of problems and detailed recommendations for how they should be tackled.

I was startled to see that, over these years, I have contributed about 475 posts, more than 350 of them directly focused on TSCA.  That is a lot of words, but I hope they can still serve as a resource, and a window into what we believe can and needs to be done to protect everyone from toxic chemicals.

For now, I’ll just say, not goodbye, but see you later.

Also posted in EPA, Public Health, TSCA Reform, Worker Safety / Read 5 Responses

FDA and industry continue to ignore cumulative effects of chemicals in the diet

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made no apparent progress to comply with the legal requirement that it consider the cumulative effect of chemicals in the diet that have similar health impacts when evaluating the safety of an additive. A year ago, on September 23, 2020, EDF and 11 other organizations[1] filed a formal petition with the agency documenting the problem and asking it begin complying with the law.

We reviewed FDA and industry actions since the petition was filed and found that both continued to ignore the requirement 100% of the time in:

  • Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notices in which companies were required to consider the cumulative effect as part of their determination that a substance’s use was safe;
  • FDA’s responses to those GRAS notices where it found “no questions” with the flawed safety determinations; and
  • FDA’s revised guidance to industry on use of recycled plastics in food packaging.

The agency’s only response to our petition was a March 2021 letter saying it “has not reached a decision due to competing priorities” and that the “petition is currently under active evaluation by [its] staff.”

From what we can see, FDA and industry continue to make safety determinations about chemical additives without regard to their overall effect on individuals’ health and their legal obligations. Is it any surprise that consumers continue to rate chemicals in food their #1 food safety concern? Read More »

Also posted in FDA, Food, GRAS, PFAS / Tagged , , , | Comments are closed

Loosening industry’s grip on EPA’s new chemicals program

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

[I delivered a shorter version of these comments at the September 22, 2021 webinar titled “Hair on Fire and Yes Packages! How the Biden Administration Can Reverse the Chemical Industry’s Undue Influence,” cosponsored by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), NH Safe Water Alliance, and EDF.  A recording of the webinar will shortly be available here.  The webinar, second in a series, follows on EPA whistleblower disclosures first appearing in a complaint filed by PEER that are detailed in a series of articles by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept.]

The insularity of the New Chemicals Program – where staff only interact with industry and there is no real engagement with other stakeholders – spawns and perpetuates these industry-friendly and un-health-protective policies.

I have closely tracked the Environmental Protection Agency’s New Chemicals Program for many years.  Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the program does not serve the agency’s mission and the public interest, but rather the interests of the chemical industry.  Despite the major reforms Congress made to the program in 2016 when it overhauled the Toxic Substances Control Act, the New Chemicals Program is so badly broken that nothing less than a total reset can fix the problems.

Revelations emerging through responses Environmental Defense Fund finally received to a FOIA request we made two years ago, and through the disclosures of courageous whistleblowers who did or still work in the New Chemicals Program, confirm what I have long suspected, looking in from the outside.  The program:

  • uses practices that allow the chemical industry to easily access and hold sway over EPA reviews and decisions on the chemicals they seek to bring to market;
  • has developed a deeply embedded culture of secrecy that blocks public scrutiny and accountability;
  • employs policies – often unwritten – that undermine Congress’ major reforms to the law and reflect only industry viewpoints; and
  • operates through a management system and managers, some still in place, that regularly prioritize industry’s demands for quick decisions that allow their new chemicals onto the market with no restrictions, over reliance on the best science and protection of public and worker health.

Many of the worst abuses coming to light took place during the Trump administration, and it is tempting to believe the change in administrations has fixed the problems.  It has not.  The damaging practices, culture, policies and management systems predate the last administration and laid the foundation for the abuses.  Highly problematic decisions continue to be made even in recent weeks.

I am encouraged by recent statements and actions of Dr. Michal Freedhoff, Assistant Administrator of the EPA office that oversees TSCA implementation.  They clearly are moves in the right direction.  But it is essential that the deep-rooted, systemic nature of the problem be forthrightly acknowledged and forcefully addressed.

Let me provide some examples of each of the problems I just noted.  Read More »

Also posted in EPA, Health Science, Industry Influence, PFAS, Public Health, Regulation, TSCA Reform, Worker Safety / Tagged , | Comments are closed

FDA acts on fluorinated plastic packaging. What are next steps?

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took an important step last week to protect food from PFAS contamination from plastic packaging. On August 5, the agency sent a letter to manufacturers, distributors, and users of fluorinated polyethylene food contact articles reminding them that these articles must be made under specific conditions to comply with existing regulation or otherwise the food contact articles “are not lawful.” Therefore, the food that contacted them should not be permitted for sale. The agency gave three examples of manufacturing processes that do not comply with the regulation. We flagged concerns with fluorinated plastic packaging in a July blog and applaud the agency for this action.

This significant first step needs to be followed:

  1. Investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether their products complied with the law. If not, then alert food manufacturers and retailers so they can recall the adulterated food and cosmetics.
  2. Reassess whether the process FDA approved in 1983 for fluorinating polyethylene generates PFAS and whether it should still be considered safe.

Investigate companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging

In the letter, FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS) states that “available information indicates that some manufacturers of fluorinated polyethylene produce articles via alternative manufacturing methods from that stipulated in FDA’s regulation.” It identified three specific examples and says that “these alternative processes for fluorination of polyethylene are not compliant with 21 CFR § 177.1615, and are not lawful for use in food contact articles.” The three examples of unlawful manufacturing processes are:

  1. “Fluorination of polyethylene for non-food uses may occur during the fabrication or molding of the container.”
  2. “Use of fluorine gas in combination with other inert diluents such as carbon dioxide, helium, or argon.”
  3. Incorporation of oxygen into the fluorinating mixture to modify the properties of the final container.

A market search shows several brands that have in-mold fluorination of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), (here and here) and another that may use oxygen or other gases in combination with fluorine.

With the letter public, FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA), which handles field inspections and sampling for the agency, should ensure compliance by food manufacturers all along the supply chain. Where it finds a violation, it would manage the recall of the adulterated food.

Reassess whether the allowed use generates PFAS and should still be considered safe

About a week before FDA sent out the letter, the agency responded to our May 2021 FOIA request for the documentation that resulted in its 1983 approval of fluorinated polyethylene packaging at 21 CFR § 177.1615. The approval came in response to a 1979 food additive petition by Union Carbide.

As with most of FDA’s FOIA responses, the 233-page document has extensive redactions of health and safety information. However, two things come through clearly:

  1. Nitrogen and fluorine only: In its petition and communications with FDA, Union Carbide was inconsistent when it explained whether nitrogen was only an example of an acceptable inert gas. FDA scientists demanded clarity and the company agreed that only nitrogen would be allowed. In its recent letter, FDA reminds companies that only this condition is approved.
  2. Fluorinated organics: The petition included studies of the chemicals that migrated into a simulated food such as water or alcohol. The study evaluated the residue that remained after the food simulant was evaporated off. Union Carbide maintained that fluorine in the residue was almost entirely ionic fluorine – the kind added to toothpaste – and showed that the exposure was within tolerated levels. FDA scientists kept pushing back explaining that there was evidence the residue contained substances with a carbon-fluorine bond – a indicator of what we now refer to as PFAS. FDA finally relented, stating that “our general conclusion is that low molecular weight fluorocarbon-oxygen compounds should not be present in significant quantities.” (see page 195 of FOIA response).

We now know that levels of PFAS that were considered insignificant by FDA in the 1980s pose significant risks as evidenced by some of the agency’s recent actions. For those reasons, we reaffirm our call in our July 2021 blog and in the June 2021 citizens petition submitted by 11 organizations to FDA to reassess the safety of PFAS uses, including fluorinated polyethylene.

As part of that reassessment, FDA needs to revisit the concerns raised by the agency scientists in 1983 in light of the risks posed by PFAS. Specifically:

  • Nitrogen: In its August 5 letter, FDA states that a form of PFAS known as perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids “can form when the fluorination of HDPE occurs in the presence of oxygen or water, but not in the presence of nitrogen.” However, the agency does not acknowledge that commercially available nitrogen contains contaminants like oxygen. Food-grade nitrogen can have as much as 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of oxygen and 55 ppm of water. These levels could well be sufficient to generate significant amounts of PFAS.
  • PFAS leaching into food: Since the amount of PFAS in food considered “significant” is dramatically lower than in 1983 when FDA made its decision, the agency needs to evaluate whether it is practical – even with the purest nitrogen – to fluorinate plastic without making PFAS.

If the agency determines that the fluorine gas treatment process creates any PFAS, the law explicitly requires that FDA evaluate safety after taking into account the cumulative effects of related substances in the diet that have related health impacts. As with virtually all of its decisions, the agency failed to do that for its 1983 approval. Given the pervasive presence of PFAS in the environment and the additional PFAS FDA authorized for use in food packaging, this type of review is even more important.

Conclusion

In summary, FDA’s August 5, 2021 letter is an important step in the effort to protect consumers from PFAS in food. Now the agency needs to investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether the products complied with the law and take action. It must also reassess the safety of the packaging even if it complies with the specific conditions in its 1983 approval.

Also posted in FDA, Food, PFAS, Regulation, Uncategorized / Tagged , , , , | Comments are closed

Whistleblower revelations about EPA TSCA new chemical reviews

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

[I delivered these comments at the July 28, 2021 webinar titled “Toxic Chemicals, Whistleblowers, and the Need for Reform at EPA
cosponso
red by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), NY PIRG, and EDF.  [A recording of the webinar is available here.]  The webinar followed on whistleblower disclosures in a complaint filed by PEER and the first in what will be a series of articles by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept detailing the allegations.]

I have long described the EPA new chemicals program as a “black box.”  For decades, it has operated almost entirely out of public view, in multiple respects:

  • Excessive confidentiality claims and withholding of information from the public have been standard operating procedures.
  • A purely bilateral mode of operating developed, where the only parties in the room are EPA and the chemical industry.
  • The inability of the public to access information and meaningfully participate has severely limited public input and scrutiny.
  • As a result, a highly insular, almost secretive program culture arose over time, one where EPA has often viewed its only stakeholders to be the companies seeking quick approval of their new chemicals.
  • In sum, private interests trumped public interests.

TSCA reform sought to address key problems

The 2016 amendments to TSCA significantly overhauled the new chemicals provisions of the then-40-year-old law, seeking to rebalance those interests to some extent:

  • EPA for the first time is required to make a safety finding for each new chemical and explain the scientific basis for its finding.
  • Lack of sufficient information in and of itself is grounds for restricting a chemical and/or requiring testing. Before, unless EPA had enough data to show potential risk, it simply dropped the chemical from further review and allowed it onto the market.
  • Companies’ ability to simply assert their submissions are confidential has been reined in in several ways.

To be sure, the amendments did not address all of the program’s problems.  For example, despite the fact that the vast majority of new chemicals lack basic safety data, requiring companies to provide a minimum set of information – as many other countries do for new chemicals – was a bridge too far in the face of massive industry opposition.  The revelations indicate this is still a big problem:  Despite TSCA’s mandate that EPA restrict or require testing of chemicals lacking sufficient information, that has not been happening.  EPA still excessively relies on estimating a new chemical’s potential risks using models and extrapolations of data from other chemicals – approaches that have serious limitations, introduce large uncertainties, and are themselves a black box.

Enter the Trump EPA – the damage done

Immediately after the 2016 reforms, there were signs that EPA was starting down a better path.  But under the last Administration that progress was quickly reversed and the worst features of the pre-reform program came roaring back.  Indeed, where the program ended up was worse than before TSCA reform.  Clearly, the new revelations vividly show that – and how far we have to go, both in implementing the reforms and in changing the disturbing culture that still pervades the program.  What strikes me about the whistleblowers’ allegations is that they all cut in industry’s favor, removing or downplaying risks the scientists had flagged.  This argues against these simply being cases of scientific disagreement and points to a systemic problem.  Read More »

Also posted in Industry Influence, TSCA Reform, Worker Safety / Tagged , , , | Read 3 Responses

State legislation requires replacement of ¼ of the country’s lead pipes

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

With the recent passage of excellent legislation in Illinois and New Jersey, one out of every four of the nation’s lead service lines (LSLs) is on a mandatory schedule to be fully replaced, with strict limits on partial replacement in the interim. These states now join Michigan in leading the way on replacing lead pipes– made all the more important because they have some of the highest numbers of LSLs in the country.

Both the Illinois and New Jersey laws[1] were the result of extensive negotiations between stakeholders and were passed with broad bipartisan support. We applaud the bill sponsors and the advocacy organizations that made it happen.

The most significant difference between the three state policies is their deadlines for utilities to fully replace the LSLs:

  • Illinois: range of 15 years to 50 years depending on a given utility’s number of LSLs.
  • New Jersey: 10-year deadline with an option to extend to 15 years
  • Michigan: 20-year deadline.

Read More »

Also posted in Drinking Water, EPA, lead, Regulation, States / Tagged , , | Comments are closed