The Obama administration on Sept. 6 moved to withdraw two pending proposals that would have helped inform the public about potentially dangerous chemicals.
One would have listed bisphenol A (BPA), eight phthalates and a class of flame retardants known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) as “chemicals of concern.” The other would have made it harder for chemical companies to claim health and safety studies of new chemicals as confidential business information to shield them from public scrutiny.
“The White House is catering to the interests of Dow, BASF, Exxon and other chemical manufacturers, and failing to protect the health of the American people,” said Daniel Rosenberg, senior attorney in the public health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are keeping information secret and stifling public debate on toxic chemicals the American people are widely exposed to now, and may endanger children’s health and the environment. Also, the White House blocked EPA’s efforts to help the public learn about new chemicals that raise health and environmental concerns.”
Previous EPA Actions
On Sept. 29, 2009, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson outlined a set of agency principles to help inform legislative reform and announced that EPA would act on a number of widely studied chemicals that might pose threats to human health. When TSCA was passed in 1976, there were 60,000 chemicals on the inventory of existing chemicals. Between 1976 and September 2009, EPA only had successfully restricted or banned five existing chemicals and only had required testing on another 200 existing chemicals. During the same time, an additional 20,000 chemicals had entered the marketplace.
On Dec. 30, 2009, EPA announced that for the first time, the agency intended to establish a “Chemicals of Concern” list and was beginning a process that could lead to regulations requiring significant risk reduction measures to protect human health and the environment. The agency’s actions “represent its determination to use its authority under the existing Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to the fullest extent possible, recognizing EPA’s strong belief that the 1976 law is both outdated and in need of reform,” the agency said at the time. At that time, the agency planned to:
- Add phthalates and PBDE chemicals to the concern list.
- Begin a process that could lead to risk reductions actions under Section 6 of TSCA for several phthalates, short-chain chlorinated paraffins and perfluorinated chemicals.
- Reinforce the DecaBDE phaseout, which was scheduled to take place over 3 years – with requirements to ensure that any new uses of PBDEs are reviewed by EPA prior to returning to the market. (DecaBDE was a widely used fire-retardant chemical that may potentially cause cancer and may impact brain function.)
This was the first time EPA used TSCA’s authority to list chemicals that “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to health and the environment.” The decision to list the chemicals further signaled “this administration’s commitment to aggressively use the tools at its disposal under TSCA. Inclusion on the list publicly signals EPA’s strong concern about the risks that those chemicals pose and the agency’s intention to manage those risks. Once listed, chemical companies can provide information to the agency if they want to demonstrate that their chemical does not pose an unreasonable risk,” EPA said at the time.
On March 29, 2010, EPA announced a number of actions to address the potential effects of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the manufacture of a wide range of consumer and industrial products. The BPA action plan focused on the environmental impacts of BPA and contemplated adding BPA to EPA’s list of chemicals of concern and require testing related to environmental effects. The actions are part of then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s comprehensive effort to strengthen the agency’s chemical management program and assure the safety of chemicals. In January 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it had some concerns about the potential human health impacts of BPA and it would study the potential effects and ways to reduce exposure to BPA in food packaging.
The withdrawal of the proposals “is wrong,” said Rosenberg, “which is why it’s being done on a Friday afternoon, typically when administrations release information for which they know they ought to be ashamed.”