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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
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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 »

Posted in Health Policy, Industry Influence, TSCA Reform, Worker Safety / Also tagged , | Read 3 Responses

When will EPA fully explain and legally justify its reviews of new chemicals under TSCA?

Stephanie Schwarz, J.D., is a Legal Fellow.  Richard Denison, Ph.D.is a Lead Senior Scientist.

Over two years have passed since EPA published its first, highly controversial New Chemicals Decision-Making Framework.  This document attempted to lay out major changes EPA was making, in response to relentless industry pressure, to its reviews of new chemicals entering the market.  Prior to this, EPA had been conducting reviews that largely conformed to the new requirements for these reviews that Congress included in the reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) enacted in June 2016.

Among the many concerning aspects of EPA’s new approach were its herculean efforts to avoid finding a new chemical “may present an unreasonable risk” or that the information available to EPA is insufficient to permit a reasoned evaluation of the chemical.  Under reformed TSCA, either of those findings requires EPA to issue an order – as specified under section 5(e) of TSCA – that restricts the chemical, requires testing, or both in a manner sufficient to ameliorate the potential risk.

One of EPA’s new tactics was to illegally bifurcate its review of a company’s “intended” uses of the new chemical from other “reasonably foreseen” uses.  The company would get the coveted unfettered approval to enter commerce, based on an EPA review limited to its intended uses; these approvals take the form of EPA issuing a finding that the chemical is “not likely to present an unreasonable risk.”  Any review of other reasonably foreseen uses would be relegated (if it took place at all) to a later, wholly separate process that would only be triggered if EPA also promulgated a so-called “significant new use rule” (SNUR).  Under such a SNUR, a company seeking to engage in a reasonably foreseen use of the chemical EPA identified would be required to first notify EPA, who would then conduct a review of that new, now “intended,” use.

These SNURs are often referred to as “non-5(e) order SNURs” because they do not follow from EPA’s issuance of an order under section 5(e) – indeed, avoiding such orders was the whole point.  We have previously addressed the many problems – legal, policy, and scientific – with this approach; see for example, here and here.  These include:

  • the failure to assess all intended and reasonably foreseen uses of a new chemical at the same time, as required by TSCA and necessary to consider the potential for people to be subject to multiple exposures; and
  • the inability to require testing of the new chemical substance using a SNUR, which can be required through an order.

EPA held a public meeting and took public comment on its 2017 Framework at the time it was published.  But it never responded to the many comments it received criticizing its framework.  And when EPA was sued over its use of the Framework, it dodged the suit by claiming it was not using the Framework (see p. 14 here), leading to the lawsuit being withdrawn.  (Later in this post below we discuss that EPA has in fact been repeatedly using the core feature of the Framework.)

Meanwhile, hundreds of decisions made with no public framework

EPA has never made public any subsequent description of its decision-making approach or justification for it, despite the hundreds of new chemical approvals it has been cranking out ever since.  EPA has also never responded to the numerous public comments it received criticizing its framework.

Frustration over this situation led to a Congressional call for EPA to publish and then take comment on an updated description of its new chemicals review process.  Last January, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made a commitment to Senator Carper to publish a revised new chemicals framework that would specify: “(i) the statutory and scientific justifications for the approaches described, (ii) the policies and procedures EPA is using/plans to use in its PMN reviews, and (iii) its responses to public comments received,” and to provide opportunity for public comment on the revised framework.

Last month EPA announced that it will hold a “Public Meeting on [the] TSCA New Chemicals Program,” which is to take place tomorrow, December 10.  However, while the agenda includes a speaker who will provide an “overview” of what EPA is now calling its “working approach,” EPA’s announcement indicated it would not release any actual document before the public meeting; instead, it will do so “by the end of the year.”  And while the meeting agenda provides for “public feedback” at the end of the meeting, the lack of any document to respond to will surely limit the ability of the public to provide meaningful input.

Absent such a public document, the rest of this post will provide our best understanding of how EPA has been reviewing new chemicals over the last two years, based on our scrutiny of each such decision.  Read More »

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