Why the EPA Can’t Manage to Ban Known Carcinogens
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"
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 review—that 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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The 17-Year Review of Formaldehyde
Not surprisingly, Charles and David Koch, owners of formaldehyde maker Georgia-Pacific, are some of the top political donors.
Formaldehyde is a perfect case study of the chemical industry’s delay tactics. The EPA first classified the chemical as a “probable carcinogen” in 1989. It took the agency nearly 17 years to reclassify it as a “known carcinogen”—a designation that the International Association of Cancer Research and the National Cancer Institute also use.
Formaldehyde is used in adhesive for plywood, commonly found in furniture, flooring, and cabinets. Formaldehyde off-gassing is a source of indoor pollution that can cause respiratory problems and leukemia.
The dangerous health consequences of formaldehyde exposure were seen after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA trailers were provided to displaced victims, but occupants soon complained of respiratory problems. More than three years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged that the trailers’ formaldehyde levels were unsafe and advised occupants to relocate.
But, the EPA was threatened by the formaldehyde industry at every turn, unable to publish a final reassessment of the carcinogen, and therefore, unable to set exposure limits.
Not surprisingly, Charles and David Koch, owners of formaldehyde maker Georgia-Pacific, are some of the top political donors. A year before they purchased Georgia-Pacific in 2005, Koch Industries paid $6,000 to Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Inhofe delayed the formaldehyde assessment, requesting a need for more robust research. Later in 2008, the Government Accountability Office directly linked Inhofe’s actions to the formaldehyde assessment delay.
The industry used the same tactic in 2009. Senator David Vitter (R.-La.), who received $20,500 that year from formaldehyde producers, blocked the appointment of Dr. Paul Anastas to EPA’s Office of Research and Development in order to force another round of reviews by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a nonprofit representing the nation’s leading scientists.
Senator David Vitter, who received $20,500 from formaldehyde producers, blocked the EPA appointment of Dr. Paul Anastas to force another round of reviews.
Besides not wanting to delay the assessment even more, the EPA prefers to have their research reviewed by their Science Advisory Board because it typically takes 12 to 16 months to complete and costs $200,000, compared to an NAS review which typically takes 18 to 24 months and can cost $1 million. Plus, NAS scientists have been connected to industry-funded research.
In 2010, the EPA finally published a draft report that stated that a lifetime of average indoor exposure to formaldehyde would present a 1 in 1,000 chance of developing cancer. After 14 months, the NAS completed their review and recommended that the report be rewritten to more clearly articulate the scientific research—but finding no issue with the research itself, nor its conclusions. Regardless, the American Chemistry Council used NAS’s comments to justify its attacks of the EPA’s research.
In 2014, the EPA released a new version of the assessment, which the NAS gave their stamp of approval, confirming that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. The ACC responded, declaring that the NAS “[missed] an opportunity to advance the science.”
This year, the EPA’s Rule on Formaldehyde in Composite Wood Products, which sets maximum limits on emissions, was supposed to go into effect, but has since been frozen by the new administration.
EPA Scientists Pressured to Downplay Results
EPA scientist Jess Rowland was accused of playing “political conniving games with the science.”
What’s even more troubling than a delayed assessment though is a flawed one. EPA whistleblowers have alleged that scientists are sometimes pressured to alter or downplay results because of industry influence.
This was evidenced with the EPA's 2010 investigation on the effects of fracking on drinking water.
More than 3,000 pages of internal documents revealed close ties between the EPA and Chesapeake Energy—a key player in the industry who relies on fracking. One EPA employee even commented on a report draft : “[Y]ou guys are part of the team here...please write things in as you see fit.”
Industry demands resulted in the study abandoning a main research goal: to measure pollution levels before and after fracking at two well sites. Not surprisingly, in the end the report declared that they did not find evidence of “widespread, systemic” pollution of drinking water caused by fracking.
In August 2016, the Science Advisory Board completed their review of the study, disappointed with the results. Twenty-six of the 30 reviewers signed a letter condemning the report's conclusions, believing that there was a lack of evidence to support them.
A similar blurring of facts happened with the EPA’s assessment on glyphosate (commonly known as Roundup), the most used herbicide in the world.
The International Association of Cancer Research and California have classified the chemical as a “probable carcinogen,” and have since battled with glyphosate’s manufacturer Monsanto. California was sued by Monsanto for trying to label it as a carcinogen (which California defeated earlier this year) and the IARC is currently faced with a public relations campaign discrediting their entire organization.
The powerful weed killer has been linked to a host of medical issues, including lymphatic cancers and celiac disease, with potential problems both for those who apply the herbicide and for those who consume produce treated with Roundup.
The EPA issued a report declaring that glyphosate wasn’t a carcinogen but quickly took it down saying that the research wasn’t complete.
A court filing earlier this year though reveals that Monsanto may be influencing the agency. The filing includes correspondence from EPA toxicologist Marion Copley accusing EPA scientist Jess Rowland of intimidating staff to change reports to downplay the risks of glyphosate.
Rowland was one of the authors of an EPA assessment that declared the herbicide was safe; this report was quickly taken down though, citing a need for additional research. In the correspondence, Copley accuses Rowland of playing “political conniving games with the science.”
The glyphosate review is expected to be released in 2017—it’s already delayed by two years.
Fight Back Against the Chemical Industry
Cancer diagnoses and other ailments continue to pile up for American consumers and workers exposed to dangerous substances like glyphosate, formaldehyde, and asbestos. It’s bad enough that these companies produce and use such harmful chemicals, but by preventing the EPA from issuing restrictions and limits on exposure, they are putting profits over the health and safety of many Americans.
If you need help holding manufacturers accountable for exposing you or a loved one to a carcinogen or other dangerous chemical, ClassAction.com can help. Contact our legal team today for a free, no-obligation case review.