The Politics of Banning Toxic Chemicals

Catherine Zander, PhD
Postdoctoral fellow in the department of pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine

In the fall of 2017, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) selected Catherine Zander, PhD, as the first participant in the ASH Congressional Fellowship program. The program aims to connect hematologists to the policy-making process and educate congressional members and staff about issues that are important to hematologists and their patients. Dr. Zander is in the nation’s capital for one year, working with the Democratic staff of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the many health policy issues related to soil, air, noise, and water contamination, as well as emergency environmental response. In this edition of “Notes From the Hill,” Dr. Zander updates readers on changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates the distribution and use of cancer-causing chemicals.

When I was selected for the ASH Congressional Fellowship, I sought a position on Capitol Hill where I could use my training in biophysical chemistry and my biomedical experience with thrombosis in a meaningful way: to understand the public health risks and consequences of toxic chemicals and other pollutants. My intent, and the plan of the Environment Subcommittee, was to evaluate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) long-awaited updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 – legislation through which the agency regulates the distribution or use of new or existing chemicals in the U.S.1

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which amends the 40-year-old TSCA, was signed into law on June 22, 2016.2 Despite the protective intent of the original TSCA statute, several factors rendered it ineffective. Flaws and serious limitations to the EPA’s authority made it impossible to ban even the most dangerous of substances, including asbestos and lead. The 2016 law granted the EPA authority to remove dangerous substances from consumer products, commerce, and the environment.

“It is essential that our community educates Congressional members on the severity of these cancers. …”

With bipartisan support, the U.S. Congress authorized the EPA to take early action on several toxic solvents, one of which was trichloroethylene (TCE). TCE is used mainly as a degreaser, as a spot-cleaning agent for dry cleaners, and in spray fixatives for craft uses. TCE is carcinogenic through all routes of exposure and has been linked to increased risks for the development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and leukemia, as well as a litany of other health issues, ranging from fetal heart malformations to scleroderma. Due to the severity of the health effects, the EPA proposed bans on specific uses of TCE and several other toxic solvents in late 2016 and early 2017.3 These were the first proposed restrictions on existing toxic chemicals by the EPA since 1989, when the agency issued a final rule under the TSCA banning most asbestos-containing products.4

The minority Democratic members of the Committee requested hearings on the TSCA in June and August 2016, with assurances from the majority Republican Committee Members that a hearing would be held in September 2016. September came and went without a hearing, so the Democratic members submitted another request for November. These repeated requests were spurred by dire concerns over the effects of
toxic solvents like TCE, as well as delays in the review of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. (In 2016, the EPA and its scientific advisory board determined that chlorpyrifos was damaging and could not determine any safe level of exposure, but the issue is stalled.)

Similarly alarming were reports of EPA staff making politically-motivated decisions based on concerns for the economic interests of the Dow Chemical Company and the revelation of serious conflicts of interest from an EPA appointee in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention who had close and recent ties to the chemical industry’s main trade organization.5

Then, on December 14th, 2017, one week after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first visit to Capitol Hill since his appointment 10 months prior, the EPA released their semi-annual regulatory agenda.6 The agency quietly decided to postpone any regulatory actions concerning TCE and put the regulations indefinitely into the category of “long-term action.”

In the accompanying press release, Mr. Pruitt stated, the “EPA’s plan balances its statutory requirements to issue regulations and its commitment to providing regulatory certainty through improvements to existing regulations that were flawed, outdated, ineffective, or unnecessarily burdensome.”6

Many disagreed with this statement, including Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the ranking minority member of the Committee, who called these indefinite delays “unnecessary and dangerous.” He added that, “the harmful impacts of these chemicals are avoidable, and EPA should finalize the proposed rules as soon as possible.”7

Six months later, there still isn’t a TSCA oversight hearing scheduled, and TCE is available for purchase in hardware and craft stores. Regulation delays and issues like these illustrate why it is essential that our community educates Congressional members on the severity of these cancers and encourages them to hold the EPA to its statutory responsibilities to protect human health and the environment.

As we await the next steps in review of TCE and TSCA, I’m continuing to assist the committee on several other projects: tracking and addressing the policies and scandals of the present EPA political appointees, preparing educational materials for committee members on toxic chemicals, and assisting in budget and legislative hearings.

References

  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Summary of the Toxic Substances Control Act.” Accessed April 26, 2018, from https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-toxic-substances-control-act.
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.” Accessed April 26, 2018, from https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/frank-r-lautenberg-chemical-safety-21st-century-act.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Risk Management for Trichloroethylene (TCE).” Accessed April 26, 2018, from https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/risk-management-trichloroethylene-tce.
  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos.” Accessed April 26, 2018, from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos.
  5. The New York Times. “Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots.” Accessed April 26, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/21/us/trump-epa-chemicals-regulations.html.
  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “EPA Releases Annual Regulatory Plan.” Accessed April 26, 2018, from https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-releases-annual-regulatory-plan.
  7. The New York Times. “E.P.A. Delays Bans on Uses of Hazardous Chemicals.” Accessed April 26, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/19/health/epa-toxic-chemicals.html.

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