EDF Health

Now’s the Time—How EPA Can Use TSCA to Turn Off the PFAS Tap

The words P F A S are coming out of a golden faucet. The letters look like clouds or steam.

In the face of mounting evidence about the dangers posed by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), one thing is clear: EPA needs to take urgent action to turn off the tap of these “forever chemicals” that have long-term consequences for our health and the environment.

As we discussed in a previous blog, it is imperative that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) use the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to regulate PFAS chemicals comprehensively—both those newly entering the market and those that have been in circulation for decades.

EPA Should Re-evaluate Its Past Approvals of PFAS

A cornerstone of effective regulation is the re-evaluation of earlier decisions in light of new data. EPA approved many PFAS chemicals 10–20 years ago, before there was a full picture of the pervasiveness and degree of PFAS contamination and its long-term impact. These previously approved PFAS continue to be produced and used—adding to the already substantial PFAS contamination of our environment.

In addition, the 2016 amendments to TSCA, known as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, significantly expanded both EPA’s authority and its obligation to regulate harmful chemicals, emphasizing potential risks to highly exposed and other vulnerable populations. Using today’s science, EPA should use its authority to re-evaluate the hundreds of previously approved PFAS, including those the agency exempted from full TSCA review.

For both past approvals and for new PFAS entering the market, EPA should take the following steps to up its game:

Use the Best Available Science
The foundation for any regulatory action must be solid science. EPA’s TSCA program should rely on the scientific expertise on PFAS across the agency. EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) has been evaluating PFAS, and the agency has proposed drinking water standards based on robust scientific findings. It is vital that EPA use this best available science when applying TSCA regulations to PFAS. Anything less could undermine the effectiveness of regulatory action, and the protection of human health and the environment.

Assess Cumulative Risks
TSCA provides the framework for a more inclusive understanding of chemical risks, yet EPA’s TSCA program considers PFAS chemicals in isolation. This is an outmoded strategy for protecting human health and the environment. EPA must move toward a cumulative risk assessment model, accounting for the effects of exposure to multiple PFAS chemicals, especially to vulnerable populations. Under the 2016 amendments to TSCA, the EPA has the mandate and authority to do so.

No Release is Negligible
EPA has argued that some PFAS should be of little concern if they have “negligible” releases. The argument that small releases of PFAS are inconsequential falls apart when you consider that they are environmentally mobile, highly persistent and bioaccumulative. Every release contributes to long-term, cumulative exposure. EPA should not discount the impacts of these PFAS by characterizing them as negligible. EPA should exercise its TSCA authority to ensure that all PFAS releases are treated as significant and subject to protective regulatory oversight.

Facilitate Safer Alternatives
The continued presence of harmful PFAS chemicals on the market not only risks public health but also stifles innovation. By using TSCA to restrict or ban these substances, EPA would incentivize the rapid development and adoption of safer alternatives—a step that is long overdue.

In sum, EPA has the regulatory tools it needs to turn off the PFAS tap and protect human health and the environment. By using its full authority under TSCA, EPA can ensure a future where chemicals do not compromise our health and safety. The time for decisive action is now.

Also posted in Chemical exposure, Chemical regulation, Cumulative impact, Cumulative risk assessment, Drinking water, Emerging science, Health policy, PFAS, Public health, Regulation, Risk assessment, Risk evaluation, TSCA, TSCA reform, Vulnerable populations / Tagged , , | Authors: / 2 Responses

Workers are people too; EPA should treat them that way

EPA’s proposed TSCA rule to limit risks from chrysotile asbestos uses a higher “acceptable” cancer risk for workers than the rest of the population

Maria Doa, Ph.D., Senior Director, Chemicals Policy

When it comes to drawing the line on cancer risks, should workers be treated differently than the general population? Of course not. Unfortunately, EPA’s recently proposed rule to manage risks from chrysotile asbestos does just that, using one level of acceptable risk for workers and another – more protective threshold – for everyone else.

EPA says it uses a range for determining acceptable cancer risks under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the country’s main chemical safety law. The range spans a risk (or the chance that a person will develop cancer) of less than one in 10,000 to a risk of less than one in one million. EPA says this is consistent with the cancer benchmark used by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

However, EPA’s proposed TSCA rule for asbestos does not actually use a range and it is not supported by TSCA. EPA instead applies a risk level to workers 100 times less protective than for everyone else! Read More »

Also posted in Public health, TSCA reform / Tagged , , , , | Comments are closed

The many ways the American Chemistry Council wants to turn back time on TSCA implementation – Part 1

Part 1 of a 2-part series: Minimizing or ignoring chemical risks

Maria Doa, Ph.D., Senior Director, Chemicals Policy 

In its recently issued ‘State of TSCA’ report, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) tries to turn back the clock on how EPA assesses and mitigates the risks of toxic chemicals. The chemical industry group looks to return to the policies of the Trump years – a time rife with scientific integrity issues and wholesale disregard of risks – particularly those risks to frontline communities, workers and other vulnerable groups: the very groups the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) calls out for special consideration.

This 2-part blog series looks at the six ways ACC hopes to turn back time on chemical safety and looks at the harms that would result if trade group’s self-serving ideas were to be adopted. Part 1 looks at the types of risks ACC wants EPA to exclude from its chemical risk evaluations, the workers and other groups whose health would be affected, as well as the trade group’s goal to have itself appointed as the arbitrator of EPA science. Part 2 looks at ACC’s efforts to dictate the process for assessing new chemicals and industry’s clear goal to avoid paying its fair share of the cost to evaluate the risks posed by some of the most dangerous chemicals already in the marketplace.  Read More »

Also posted in Health policy, Health science, Industry influence, TSCA reform / Tagged , , | Comments are closed

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: Read More »

Also posted in TSCA reform / Tagged , , , , , | Read 2 Responses

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 Health policy, Public health, TSCA reform / Tagged | Read 5 Responses

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.][pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

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 Health policy, Health science, Industry influence, PFAS, Public health, Regulation, TSCA reform / Tagged , , | Comments are closed