The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century was signed into law with a general sigh of relief that finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would have the authority needed to evaluate and regulate the tens of thousands of commercial chemicals it oversees in the U.S. But as the EPA begins implementing the new law, the chemical industry is already busy pushing the agency to limit scrutiny of various widely used, highly toxic chemicals.
Among the EPA’s first tasks under the Lautenberg Act is to enact rules outlining how it will prioritize chemicals for review and how it will assess chemical risks. As part of this process, the EPA has asked stakeholders for input on how these rules should be shaped. Reading industry representatives’ comments reveals that many are using this as an opportunity to defend select chemicals.
This is notable since the Lautenberg Act – that updates the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) for the first time since TSCA was enacted in 1976 – was also welcomed for its “safety standard.” This replaces TSCA’s cost-benefit analysis that required EPA to include commercial considerations when deciding on chemical restrictions. But many industry group comments suggest we’ve not heard the last of the old argument.
Among the chemicals being defended is, believe it or not, asbestos. The American Chemistry Council’s Chlorine Chemistry Division does not want EPA to put asbestos on the agency’s priority list. The group makes its case for continued use of asbestos to produce chlorine and caustic soda, in what’s called the chlor-alkali industry. ACC explained in its comments that, “Because the use of asbestos in the chlor-alkali industry is confined in the production process, worker exposure risk is essentially eliminated.” A known carcinogen, asbestos can also cause the incurable lung diseases asbestosis and and the deadly cancer mesothelioma. And while asbestos is now barred from many products, it continues to be allowed in numerous construction materials, automotive parts and various other products. According to the U.S. Geological Survey about 400 metric tons were used in the U.S. in 2014, mostly by the chlor-alkali industry. It also remains in many existing products, posing potential hazards during renovation, demolition and other such activities.
In its comments, the Color Pigment Manufacturers Association (CPMA) questions EPA’s designation of benzidine dyes and other pigment chemicals as high priorities under TSCA’s “Work Plan.” Benzidine dyes are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and EPA as human carcinogens. CPMA questions the extent to which people are exposed to benzidine dyes through products. The Lautenberg Act requires the first 10 chemicals it evaluates to be drawn from EPA’s existing TSCA “Work Plan chemicals.”
The Vinyl Institute makes a similar case, suggesting that as manufacturing chemicals, vinyl chloride monomer (a known human carcinogen) and ethylene dichloride (a probable human carcinogen) need not rise to the level of Lautenberg Act high priority chemicals.
Similarly, the Alkylphenols & Ethoxylates Research Council suggests that its chemical products – that include nonylphenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates used to make detergents, plastics, paints and personal care among other products – may not merit EPA’s current level of scrutiny. Describing “a chemical that is used solely as a chemical intermediate as having “consumer use” overstates the potential exposure to the public,” writes the council. EPA, however, considers both chemical groups extremely toxic to aquatic organisms, estrogenic and moderately bioaccumulative. The chemicals have also been found in human breast milk, blood and urine. Likewise, the Rubber Manufacturers Association comments question 1,4 dioxane’s selection as a TSCA Work Plan chemical. The group explains that 1,4-dioxane (used as a solvent but also sometimes present in a manufacturing byproduct) may not always “pose a risk to human health or the environment.” EPA considers 1,4-dioxane a respiratory and nervous system hazard, skin irritant and a probable human carcinogen.
Yet another industry group defending its products is the High Temperature Insulation Wool Coalition (HTIW) that makes refractory ceramic fibers. These are akin to fiberglass and linked in studies to lung disease, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. HTIW objects to any EPA use of current European carcinogen classification for these materials as it “is substantially more stringent than either the NTP or the IARC classifications,” which HTIW says makes them “inconsistent” with NTP, IARC and hence OSHA regulation of these products.
While these industry groups are launching a defense of the toxic substances they produce or use, other stakeholders are calling on EPA to make these compounds a priority.
For one, Senator Barbara Boxer, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking Democrat has written to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking that asbestos be among the first 10 chemicals the Lautenberg Act considers. And Maine’s Environmental Health Strategies Center has highlighted asbestos, 1,4-dioxane and nonylphenols as among the chemicals whose prioritization will determine the Lautenberg Act’s effectiveness.
From a technological standpoint, it is usually not all that difficult to protect employees or neighborhoods from the harmful industrial toxins, it just cuts into profits. And one needs to remember that, to many people, the prospect of losing or even just diminishing a source of income tends to feel life threatening. So manufacturers can easily justify risking or sacrificing the health of others and not feel that their actions are terribly psychopathic or egocentric.
In the case where a consumer product shows evidence of being a toxin, the business person is in a similar position. Having the expectation that a hypothetical risk taking, poverty fearing, slightly to severely psychopathic business executive will understand and support laboratory or epidemiological evidence that is likely to diminish his or her income stream is like expecting Donald Trump to be a ballerina.
Public fear of chemical toxins might drive these efforts more strongly if people weren't completely dependent upon lifestyles that demand a constant stream of toxin leaching products.
So we argue over the laws that govern the handling and dispersal of mild to severely toxic products in the dark, largely ignorant of the actual risks and benefits, in a profit driven forum,with interest groups battling for their patrons in the legal gladiator pit.
At this stage of evolution, this is probably the best that we can do. Without a common understanding of toxicology, on a planet with a large and rising population, in economies based on ignorance and the satisfaction of manufactured needs, and in the absence of recent dramatic toxin induced disasters, it is difficult to plead for a pristine environment and stricter control of toxics. I can't even get my supposedly college educated Republican neighbor to douse his choking, smoldering fire pit when he is done with it at night, so instead I wake up in the wee hours congested and thinking that the house is on fire.
The fight for a safer, saner world is not an easy one.