Why the EPA Can’t Manage to Ban Known Carcinogens

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Of the 80,000 chemicals currently in the marketplace, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only reviewed the safety of 570. Of those, the EPA has only banned five chemicals. Not on that list? Asbestos, formaldehyde, BPAs, and other known carcinogens.

Before you discredit the EPA as an ineffective agency, or even one that should be abolished altogether as some in Congress are demanding, it’s important to look at the myriad obstacles the agency faces that prevent it from regulating deadly substances.

Nearly every delay and hurdle is traced back to the chemical or energy industry. Industry lobbyists have used every tactic in the book to thwart the EPA, including discrediting the agency’s chemical assessments, sponsoring their own favorable research, and delaying the publication of the EPA’s studies, all while paying off scientists and politicians to support them.

Chemicals Are Considered Safe Until Proven Guilty

62,000 chemicals were grandfathered into the system, with no requirements for testing or meeting safety standards.

The root of the EPA’s problems lies with the flawed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which governs the EPA’s review of toxic chemicals.

When it passed in 1976, 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered into the system, with no requirements for testing or meeting safety standards. The nearly 20,000 chemicals which have come to market since the TSCA’s adoption are almost as good as grandfathered into the system. The EPA’s authority to ask for safety data on a new chemical is extremely limited, allowing new chemicals to come to market without knowing a lot about their effects.

The law is structured to be favorable to the chemical industry as chemicals are considered safe until proven otherwise by the EPA. In the E.U., however, this is backwards: The burden is on companies to prove the safety of new chemicals before they are introduced in the marketplace.

In 2016, Congress amended TSCA to allow the EPA greater authority to review and ban chemicals. Last December, the EPA announced their 10 priority chemicals for review which included asbestos. Though it’s a positive step, critics have argued that the new bill will weaken effective state chemical safety laws and do nothing to speed up the review process. 

EPA’s Assessments Suffer from the “Highest Risk of Failure”

Before banning or restricting a chemical, the EPA has to conduct its own formal review of the existing research on the safety and effects of a substance.

The EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) is the agency branch that reviews chemical research to determine what the safe level of exposure is in the air, food, water, and soil. Their assessments are then used by regulators to restrict or ban various chemicals.

An IRIS review is a major undertaking; an average report will take seven years to complete. The EPA says that it needs to complete 50 of these assessments every year in order to do its job effectively. Yet throughout the Bush administration, an average of five chemicals were reviewed every year. Obama’s administration wasn’t any better: In 2014, the agency only completed one review. That was better than 2015 though, which didn’t produce a single report.

In 2011, out of the 500 chemicals in the IRIS program under review, almost 400 of them were more than 10 years in the making.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that IRIS had the “highest risk of failure” of any federal government department.

Chemical Industry Relies on “Scientists for Hire”

TSCA-Reform-Infographic
Credit: Center for Environmental Health

What’s the reason behind these slow-moving reviews? Primarily industry lobbyists.

Delaying research is the primary weapon in the chemical industry’s arsenal. By forcing the EPA to get second opinions, make edits, present their research again, go through another round of reviews, and so on, not only does it delay report publications for years, but it also helps to make the agency look less credible.

“I have never seen the chemical industry say, ‘Oh, wow! It looks from all of these data and the public literature like we had better start being safer with this chemical.’ They, in my experience, have always defended their chemical, tried to show that it’s safer, or less toxic, than what independent studies show,” said Jennifer Sass, a scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in an article for Time magazine.

According to the NRDC, chemical companies will put forth their own research to settle the “debates” within the scientific community (debates which only exist in pro-industry minds).

14% of industry studies found chemicals like formaldehyde were hazardous, compared to 60% of non-industry studies.

Industry-funded research, not surprisingly, favors the industry. A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that 14% of industry studies on chemicals like atrazine and formaldehyde (carcinogens which have yet to be banned) found these chemicals were hazardous, compared to 60% of non-industry studies.

There are even pro-industry research journals: Critical Reviews in Analytical Chemistry and Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. A Vice investigation revealed that one Harvard researcher, Philippe Grandjean, joined the Critical Reviews editorial board in hopes of scientific partnership but resigned when they published two articles denying OSHA’s research that linked lung cancer to diesel fumes, just for the sake of creating public doubt.

Once published, companies will host workshops to discuss the results, and fill them with industry-funded scientists that conclude what the industry wants to hear: that the chemical of concern is safe.

A group that is often represented is Gradient, whose clients include the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an association that represents chemical companies. The Center for Public Integrity reports that half of all of the papers published by Gradient scientists were published by industry-backed publications. Critics refer to them as “scientists for hire.”

Even if experts are aware of the red flags to look out for with industry-funded research, the more of it there is, the more confusing it makes the field of research. Said Jennifer Sass in an article for Vice, “The harm is that it actually muddies the independent scientific literature.”

Whistleblower Reveals EPA Reviews Have Ties to Industry

“The study ended up being the basis for this industry getting yet another exemption from federal law.”

During the “Making EPA Great Again” congressional hearing earlier this month, hosted by the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, critics argued that the EPA’s research lacks sufficient peer reviewthat they only work with those who share their anti-industry, pro-green opinions, resulting in the agency operating within an “echo chamber,” as Rep. Lucas (R-OK) described.

Among those invited to participate in the hearing was a scientist for the American Chemistry Council, Dr. Kimberly White. She emphasized the importance of allowing diverse voices from all over the industry to review and contribute to the EPA’s assessments, using sources other than the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which, it should be noted, recruits members using a public open-call for nominations.

When pro-industry groups like the American Chemistry Council have their way and are involved in EPA reviews, the quality of reports usually suffer.

In 2004, the EPA investigated whether hydrofracking should fall under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Early on, a draft referred to dangerous levels of contamination caused by hydrofracking and possible contamination of an aquifer. The final report, however, stated that the practice “poses little or no threat to drinking water.”

“The study ended up being the basis for this industry getting yet another exemption from federal law when it should have resulted in greater regulation of this industry,” Weston Wilson, an EPA whistleblower told The New York Times. He revealed that five of the seven review panel members had ties to the oil and gas industry.

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