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How Effective is the New Chemical Policy?

Posted by Kathy Attar, MPH on May 19, 2017

Our newly reformed environmental chemicals policy, the Lautenberg Act, is caught in the middle of an assault on the EPA.

The Lautenberg Act is supposed to significantly reduce hazardous chemicals in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods. But in April, President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt asked EPA staff and the public to highlight regulations that should be eliminated or re-examined. Regulations are how the law is implemented; eliminating them is exactly the wrong approach for reducing hazardous chemical exposures.

Under our past chemical policy, the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), the public saw woefully lax regulations, resulting in heightened exposures to toxic chemicals in our consumer products and workplaces. Under TSCA we failed even to get rid of asbestos and lead, both known neurotoxins.

So why would we want to go back to that era?

EPA has just begun implementing the new system established by the Lautenberg Act, evaluating the first ten harmful chemicals on their list of substances that pose serious health concerns to consumers and workers. Many are found in consumer products and have been linked to cancer and/or reproductive, developmental and neurological toxicity.

PSR and other groups have been weighing in on the best way to evaluate chemical risks and reduce them. PSR has urged the EPA to ban specific substances, such as commercial and consumer uses of the toxic chemicals methylene chloride and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) in paint and coating removal. We have also signed on to letters as part of the Safer Chemical Healthy Families Coalition (SCHF), like the letter supporting EPA's proposal to restrict certain uses of toxic trichloroethylene (TCE) as an aerosol degreaser and spot remover in dry cleaning operations.

Industry has weighed in too, with comments that underscore their true mission: to prioritize profits above public health. Not surprising, since many of their actions over decades under the old TSCA system were to stymie attempts to improve safety and reduce chemical risks. Even when they "came to the table" to help pass the Lautenberg Act, their motives were economic; too many consumers were losing faith in the safety of chemicals in their products, hence a new system had to be established to win back confidence.

Now, the credibility of the new system is being questioned by many public health and environmental organizations. The Trump administration's initial moves do not inspire confidence. These include, besides attacks on the regulatory system itself, the appointment of a chemical industry insider to run the chemicals program at EPA. (Nancy Beck has worked for the American Chemical Council for decades, often pushing back on EPA's attempts to regulate harmful chemicals.) This makes one question whether reducing chemical exposures is a priority.

If EPA takes strong and preemptive actions to implement the Lautenberg Act, it can deliver health benefits to the U.S. However, if EPA rolls back the protections mandated under the Act, the health threats that chemicals risks cause our communities and the environment will continue unhindered.

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