Last week, 2 non-profit environmental advocacy groups – the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – filed lawsuits against the Trump administration to protect the newly revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The lawsuits, driven by “outrage” at the Environmental Protection Agency’s industry-friendly motives, challenged framework rules the agency recently drafted to outline how it will implement the new Act.
Passed and signed into law in 2016 with resounding bipartisan support, the updated TSCA was a much-needed effort to improve severely outdated regulations for tens of thousands of chemicals – regulations that have allowed 40,000 chemical-related deaths to go unavenged every year.
The Obama administration proposed a version of the framework rules last year, which could not be finalized in time for Trump to take office. Then left in the Trump administration’s pro-industry hands, the rules were finalized, but not before they were made significantly less stringent.
The EPA assures critics that its rules, which took effect in July, will support the TSCA overhaul, writing in a statement: “The agency will make determinations for chemical substances in ways that are both protective and efficient. This means directing greatest attention to those uses that pose the greatest potential for risk to health and the environment.”
However, while nobody yet knows how the EPA will enforce the TSCA law, it’s clear the agency’s priorities are more than a little skewed under the new Trump leadership.
Trump-Controlled Chemical ‘Safety’ Under Question
One particularly controversial area of the framework, a multi-stage process for chemical evaluation, is how to interpret the term “conditions of use.” This refers to the various applications for a dangerous chemical the EPA might investigate.
The Obama administration interpreted these conditions broadly as Congress was concerned with aggregate exposure, or analyzing the risks of exposure to a chemical via multiple exposure routes. Trump’s EPA, however, has narrowed the term to exclude risk assessment for conditions such as “legacy” use (use of chemicals that are banned and no longer in use) which, experts say, the EPA still needs to consider.
“When you’re assessing a chemical, it’s important to look at all the uses to understand the actual risk in the real world,” says Richard Denison, a lead senior scientist at EDF.
Of course, 1 chemical on the EPA’s list of high-risk substances falls firmly in the legacy category: asbestos. Many uses of asbestos have been banned, but their products remain undetected in thousands of American households. Understandably, anti-asbestos advocates are worried about the regulation and removal of asbestos and the EPA’s priorities under the new rules.
“These are major rules that will set the conditions for how TSCA is implemented – potentially for the next few decades,” said Noah Sachs, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at University of Richmond Law School. “If this rule stands, it is a weakening of TSCA and not at all what Congress intended.”
What Will Industry Control Do for Asbestos Exposure and Human Health?
Another issue that experts have raised is the EPA’s newfound discretion on what the agency considers a “condition of use.” This means the EPA, led by former, well-known industry lobbyists such as Nancy Beck, can decide not to investigate a substance it deems unimportant – or rather, commercially viable.
“It could do anything it wants,” said Denison.
But the idea that asbestos would be deprioritized is too much to comprehend. Asbestos causes upwards to 12,000-15,000 deaths per year through devastating diseases such malignant mesothelioma. Mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease, is a particularly aggressive cancer that patients cannot come back from: for the 3,200 people diagnosed with the disease every year, death is certain.
Under the Obama administration, the EPA recognized these terrifying facts for what they were: a strong incentive to move more quickly toward a complete ban on the substance. But the anti-regulatory attitudes of Trump and new EPA leaders, said Nicholas Ashford, director of Technology and Law at MIT, are a critical cause for concern.
“A shift has been made under the present administration. They have decided not to go very far in looking at all the uses a chemical might have,” he said. “They’re basically subverting the purpose of the act, which is protection.”