EDF Health

A consequential day in the effort to prevent lead poisoning

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Lead poisoning prevention advocates should mark May 14, 2021 as a consequential day in our collective efforts to protect public health. Last week, two decisions and a preliminary report were issued that lay a solid foundation for further progress. When translated into action, the decisions and report should result in significantly reduced lead exposure for children. These developments were:

  • A court ruling on lead-based paint hazard standards: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider – and most likely tighten – the agency’s 2019 revisions to its lead-based paint (LBP) hazard standard that define the levels of lead in paint, dust, and soil that are dangerous. The current standards remain in place until EPA revises them to comply with the law and the court’s order. This decision has significant implications for home renovations, real estate disclosures, lead cleanups, and homeowner testing. This welcome step toward stronger protections for children was only possible thanks to Earthjustice and the petitioners that challenged EPA’s flawed rule.
  • Lowered federal elevated blood lead level: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Lead Exposure and Prevention Advisory Committee (LEPAC) unanimously recommended that the agency lower its blood lead reference level (aka “elevated blood lead level” or EBLL) from 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) of lead in young children’s blood to 3.5 µg/dL. CDC appears ready to act on the recommendation. When it does, the decision will have significant implications for state and local health and housing agencies reacting to blood lead testing results for at-risk children and for action levels for lead in food.
  • New national survey of lead-based paint hazards: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) presented to LEPAC the preliminary results of its American Healthy Homes Survey II (AHHS-II), a long-overdue update to its 2006 survey. This survey of lead-based paint hazards serves as the basis for federal agencies to set priorities, assess impacts of policy decisions, and track progress. The results of samples taken in 2018-19 shows modest but significant progress across many demographics including African American households, government-supported households, and households in poverty – most likely an indication that the federal investment to fix low-income housing is paying off.

These actions put added urgency to President Biden’s America Jobs Plan that includes $45 billion in federal funding to fully replace the nation’s 9 million lead service lines and $213 billion for housing – both critical aspects of our nation’s infrastructure that need a lead poisoning prevention-oriented upgrade. We encourage Congress to provide at least $19 billion as part of an investment in housing to reduce lead-based paint hazards in pre-1940 housing, especially by replacing old, single-pane windows to get the combined benefits of safer and more energy efficient homes.

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California water utilities fear the unknown when it comes to lead service lines

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

Last month, two California trade associations submitted disconcerting comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the agency considers what to do with the revised Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) published in the waning days of the Trump Administration. The associations – the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and the California Municipal Utilities Association (CMUA) – represent 90% of the state’s drinking water utilities.

The trade associations are asking EPA to allow water utilities to tell the agency, the state, their customers, and the public that they have no lead service lines (LSLs) even when they know it may well be false. This would seriously undermine one of the most important positive aspects of the revised LCR – the service line inventory. California’s unusual definition of a “user service line” has been a long-running problem: it does not include the portion of the service line on private property. This definition is narrower than the federal one – and even the state’s definition of an LSL that has been in place for more than a quarter century.

Under EPA’s revised LCR, utilities can only claim that they have no LSLs – and thus avoid the need to comply with the rule’s more protective sampling and corrosion control requirements for systems with LSLs – if they are confident there are no LSLs based the entire length of the service line, including the portion on private property. The two state trade associations are asking EPA to put the burden of determining the composition of this portion of the service line entirely on the customer, allowing a utility to ignore a lead pipe if the customer does not provide the information. This approach will render the inventory effectively useless and misleading.

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Michigan embraces predictive tools to develop a lead service line inventory

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) released ground breaking guidance to help utilities in the state develop their “Complete Distribution System Materials Inventory” (CDSMI) that is due in 2025. The guidance is important because it explicitly allows utilities to use predictive tools to prepare an accurate materials inventory that is essential to effective lead service line (LSL) replacement efforts. Because the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) service line inventory in its revised Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) has many elements in common with Michigan’s inventory, we encourage EPA and other states to look closely at Michigan’s guidance as a model to help all utilities develop accurate service line inventories.

Michigan’s inventory requirement and guidance

Michigan’s version of the LCR requires utilities to fully replace all LSLs – the portion on both public and private property – at an average rate of 5% per year by 2040.[1] The key to compliance is an accurate CDSMI that must be submitted to EGLE and made public by January 1, 2025.

EGLE states that the CDSMI’s purpose “is to characterize, record, and maintain a comprehensive inventory of distribution system materials, including service line materials on both public and private property.” It supports effective asset management planning, LSL replacement efforts, and notification of those served by an LSL.

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Reversing the last administration’s TSCA new chemicals policies needs to be a priority for this one

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

Reprinted by permission from The Environmental Forum®, May/June 2021. MAY/ JUNE 2021 | 55
Copyright © 2021, Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, D.C. www.eli.org.

[NOTE:  This post is my contribution to a debate on TSCA implementation published by ELI.  I wrote this piece, which ELI titled “Reversing New Chemicals Program a Priority,” in late March.]

As with so much else these past four years, implementation of the 2016 reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act was not normal.

Despite bipartisan support for TSCA’s overhaul and the chemical industry’s acknowledgment that it needed a stronger federal system to restore public confidence in its products, this progress evaporated virtually overnight with the ascendance of the most anti-environmental and anti-public health administration in our lifetimes.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Trump EPA’s systematic undermining of the new TSCA’s enhancements of safety reviews for the hundreds of new chemicals entering commerce each year. The chemical industry, its army of law firms, and its political plants inside EPA went for broke.  Read More »

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10 ways the incoming FDA Commissioner should protect people from toxic chemicals in food

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

The FDA’s critical role in the COVID-19 pandemic has brought intense interest in whom President Biden will nominate to lead the agency as its new commissioner.

While COVID-19 is the priority, the FDA obviously has many vital other responsibilities. Though it doesn’t get that much attention, one of the important roles of the agency is to protect the public from unsafe chemicals in food. Frankly, their record has been disappointing, but the new administration has an opportunity to fix some key problems that scientists and doctors have been warning us about for years.

Here are ten things the new FDA Commissioner should do to keep unsafe chemicals out of our food. The list ranges from actions on specific chemicals to broader reforms.

  1. Stop letting industry decide for themselves, in secret, whether chemicals are safe and can be added to food. EDF, represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety, have sued the agency to close the dangerous “Generally Recognized as Safe” loophole.
  2. Systematically reassess dangerous food chemicals it has allowed to be used in food based on new information. The FDA approved the use of many chemicals in food decades ago, and we now have evidence that some of these are unsafe. A chemical shouldn’t be given a forever approval. There needs to be a systematic process to review the scientific evidence, especially when new risks come to light.
  3. Ban the use of perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, from use in plastic packaging and equipment that comes into contact with food. Perchlorate gets into food, and exposure is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, infants, and young children, as it has been linked to developmental delays, reduced growth, and impaired learning abilities. We’ve sued the FDA to get this chemical out of food, and the case is pending.
  4. Comply with its 60-year-old Congressional mandate to look at the cumulative effect of chemical exposures people have when deciding whether to approve the use of related chemicals in food. EDF’s investigation of 900 approval decisions found that just one followed this common-sense mandate. The reality is that no one is exposed to just one chemical – so the agency shouldn’t be analyzing chemicals’ safety as if that were the case. FDA must respond to a petition filed by EDF and other organizations demanding that the agency follow the law and assess chemicals as classes.
  5. Drive down levels of heavy metals in food. Over the last decades, evidence has emerged of concerning levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in food consumed by children, such as rice, juice, and root crops like sweet potatoes and carrots. The FDA should move quickly and aggressively on its new commitment to set limits on heavy metals in food children eat and should also set limits for other food.
  6. Use modern science when evaluating if a chemical poses a health risk. The FDA is stuck in the past by relying on outdated, less accurate scientific methods and ignoring the evolving information we now know about chemical exposure. You wouldn’t insist on driving a car the Flintstones drove just because that was the first car ever.
  7. Prohibit lead from being added to materials that contact food, such as the tin that lines metal cans, and tighten limits for lead in bottled water. EDF’s analysis of FDA data found lead in 98% of certain canned fruits compared to 3% in fresh or frozen types. We’ve sent a formal petition to FDA requesting it immediately take action to ban these harmful and unnecessary uses of lead. Though it’s not a food safety issue, the FDA should also reject a challenge to its decision to ban lead acetate in hair dye. That challenge has put the FDA decision on hold, meaning that people are literally still putting lead on their head!
  8. Prohibit ortho-phthalates from being added to food packaging and processing equipment. These chemicals are known to disrupt hormones and harm brain development. The FDA is significantly overdue in meeting its legally required deadline to make a decision based on a petition from 2016 by EDF and nine other consumer, public health, and environmental groups to ban these chemicals.
  9. Be more transparent about the decisions it is making on chemicals in food. Information about FDA decisions should be publicly available without a Freedom of Information Act request and a months-long wait to learn more about agency actions on the chemicals in our food supply.
  10. Take aggressive action on harmful PFAS in food packaging and processing equipment. PFAS (Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) can provide water and grease resistance to paper and paperboard and can also leach into food. Growing evidence links PFAS to a wide range of serious health effects – from developmental problems to cancer. And now we know that many types of PFAS bioaccumulate in the body.
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The damage done, Part 2: A post-mortem on the Trump EPA’s assault on TSCA’s new chemicals program

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

Part 2 of a 2-part series (see Part 1 here)

Last week’s announcement by EPA about improvements it is making to EPA’s reviews of new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) indicated it will begin by reversing two of the most damaging policy changes the Trump EPA made to the program:

Under the Trump EPA policies being reversed, at least 425 new chemicals were granted unfettered market access despite potential risks or insufficient information.

  • EPA will cease avoiding issuance of the binding orders TSCA requires to address potential risk or insufficient information:
    “EPA will stop issuing determinations of ‘not likely to present an unreasonable risk’ based on the existence of proposed SNURs [Significant New Use Rules]. Rather than excluding reasonably foreseen conditions of use from EPA’s review of a new substance by means of a SNUR, Congress anticipated that EPA would review all conditions of use when making determinations on new chemicals and, where appropriate, issue orders to address potential risks. Going forward, when EPA’s review leads to a conclusion that one or more uses may present an unreasonable risk, or when EPA lacks the information needed to make a safety finding, the agency will issue an order to address those potential risks.”
  • EPA will cease assuming workers are adequately protected from chemical exposures absent binding requirements on employers:
    “EPA now intends to ensure necessary protections for workers identified in its review of new chemicals through regulatory means. Where EPA identifies a potential unreasonable risk to workers that could be addressed with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard communication, EPA will no longer assume that workers are adequately protected under OSHA’s worker protection standards and updated Safety Data Sheets (SDS). Instead, EPA will identify the absence of worker safeguards as “reasonably foreseen” conditions of use, and mandate necessary protections through a TSCA section 5(e) order, as appropriate.”

If you want the details on what was wrong with these policies – legally, scientifically, and health-wise – see EDF’s comments submitted to the agency last year and a summary of them here.

It’s no accident that these two policies were prioritized for reversal.  As I discuss below, each had massive adverse impact on the rigor and outcome of EPA’s reviews of new chemicals.  The result was that the Trump EPA allowed many hundreds of new chemicals to enter commerce under no or insufficient conditions.  It did this by:  1) illegally restricting its review to only the intended uses of a new chemical selected by its maker, hence failing to follow TSCA’s mandate to identify and assess reasonably foreseen uses of the chemicals; and 2) dismissing significant risks to workers that its own reviews identified, despite TSCA’s heightened mandate to protect workers.  Read More »

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