Environment
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Why 28 years have passed since the EPA’s last chemical risk review

Tens of thousands of chemicals have not been reviewed by the EPA, and people are starting to ask questions

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hit a major milestone that some people, including leaders at the agency itself, think shouldn’t be celebrated.

On Wednesday, the agency released a final risk assessment for trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent used by artists, car mechanics, dry cleaners and others. The EPA’s in-depth report, released after a two-year analysis, shows that long-term exposure to TCE can cause cancer and other health issues, and recommends that workers take serious precautions if they must use TCE.

But in its press release, the EPA acknowledged there was something wrong — not with the risk assessment itself — but with its timeline: It was the first final risk assessment for a chemical issued by the EPA since 1986.

“The American public shouldn’t have to wait 28 years between ... chemical risk assessments,” wrote Jim Jones, EPA assistant administrator of chemical safety and pollution prevention, in a blog post. “As the old adage goes, you have to walk before you can run.”

At issue is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the 38-year-old legislation that guides the EPA’s chemical review process. The EPA says the law is “badly in need of modernization,” and most lawmakers, chemical industry stakeholders and environmental experts agree.

The law essentially says that any chemical in use before the TSCA was passed is considered safe until proven otherwise and can be used without EPA oversight. That amounts to 62,000 chemicals, according to the EPA.

The EPA says the TSCA is the only major environmental law that has not been modernized.

The EPA and environmentalists contend that there are thousands of potentially dangerous chemicals in widespread use today. They can be found in everything from agricultural products like fertilizers to flame retardants that are used on things like airplane seats and kids’ toys.

The EPA could begin reviewing chemicals without a specific mandate to do so, and that’s exactly what it’s begun doing: TCE is one of 83 chemicals the agency has identified as posing possible risks to human health, and therefore in need of prompt risk assessments.

But without a legal mandate, the EPA says it doesn’t have enough staff or funding to carry out reviews in a timely manner, and doesn’t have the authority to require companies to hand over data on potentially harmful chemicals.

It picked TCE for its first risk assessment in nearly three decades essentially because it was low-hanging fruit.

“TCE is a good first candidate, because unlike most chemicals, EPA has a significant amount of data on the substance,” Jones wrote.

Without data on other chemicals, and with new chemicals entering the marketplace at a rapid rate, experts warn that the EPA is bound to fall further and further behind on its workload.

“There are thousands of chemicals used widely that have never been studied or proven safe,” said Richard Denison, a lead scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’ve dug ourselves in a very deep hole here.”

Denison said that, given the amount of chemicals out there, even if Congress passed a law mandating that the EPA start an extensive review process tomorrow, it would be decades before the agency worked through its backlog.

But, he said, there is a glimmer of hope that the way the EPA regulates chemicals will soon change.

Denison points out that for the first time since the TSCA passed in 1976, politicians are actively discussing updating the law. Even the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for the chemical industry, has acknowledged that the TSCA needs to change in order to ensure safety for Americans. No bill has shown a strong chance of passing yet, but at this point the fact that people are talking is enough for Denison to believe change is possible.

“For the first time you have the industry at the table; for the first time you have Republicans and Democrats discussing it,” he said. “That’s never happened in the last 40 years. That’s progress.”

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