EPA Should Move Forward on Naming Priority Chemicals

by Lena Pons

October 11, 2011

EPA’s chemical management efforts have been under attack on every front. Chemical safety was one of Lisa Jackson’s priorities from her first day as EPA administrator. But during her tenure, efforts to improve chemicals policy at the agency have been met with fierce resistance. One recent attack was on EPA’s efforts to identify priority chemicals for risk assessment and risk management. 

Jackson has already tried one strategy to beef up the agency’s response to hazardous chemicals through the Chemical Action Plans. The plans quickly became a target for chemical industry groups, and in August, EPA announced that it was scrapping the program, and published a discussion guide for a new approach to prioritizing chemicals for risk assessment and potential regulation. EPA recently hosted a public discussion blog on principles for identifying priority chemicals for review and assessment. 

Despite the reset, EPA’s discussion guide covers mostly familiar territory on toxics. EPA’s proposed two-step process would draw from existing sources of chemical hazard and exposure data, including EPA’s beleaguered Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS); the Toxics Release Inventory’s Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic rule; the International Agency for Research on Cancer; and the National Toxicology Program, and then produce a “first pass” list of chemicals to target for additional risk assessment or risk management action. Then once it produces a list, it will seek additional information to determine which of these chemicals should be prioritized for further risk assessment and potential regulation.

My colleague Matt Shudtz posted a comment on the EPA’s site saying the agency should add two elements to their prioritization scheme. First, EPA should consider factoring environmental justice into this process. It should identify chemicals that disproportionately impact particular communities and slate them for immediate action. (We wrote about this in more detail in a white paper least year on prioritizing chemicals for IRIS assessment).

Second, EPA should review OSHA’s ongoing efforts to address occupational exposure to chemicals. Last year, OSHA conducted a public forum to identify chemicals that need new strategies to reduce occupational exposure. EPA should also consider using its authority under TSCA section 11(c) to obtain summaries of data collected by companies about occupational exposure to chemicals for which OSHA does not have an enforceable standard.

Meanwhile, industry groups want to do anything they can to prevent EPA from publishing a list of specific chemicals that the agency might prioritize for risk assessment or regulation. Comments to the agency’s discussion forum on its proposed chemical prioritization plan highlight industry’s preference to limit the chemicals that come out of this process as much as possible. For example, the American Petroleum Institute argues that chemicals should only be considered if they have both a hazard and an exposure factor.

Several weeks ago, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) released a competing proposal for how EPA should conduct its chemical risk prioritization. Nestled in seemingly reasonable requests that EPA rely on “transparent, consistent, scientifically based criteria” ACC asks that EPA weigh chemical risks based on “the robustness of available studies, data, and information.” But what ACC is really asking for is an opening to slap any determination EPA might make about weighing a chemical’s risk with a Request for Correction under the Data Quality Act (DQA).  ACC has already used the DQA against EPA’s Chemical Action Plan for phthalates.

And chemical risk prioritization hasn’t been the only target for industry. As I pointed out, EPA’s proposed Chemicals of Concern list has been under review at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for more than a year past its deadline. EPA, recognizing that OIRA may never let the Chemicals of Concern list go, may have been looking for another way when it announced this alternative to the Chemical Action Plans.

The chemicals industry will keep on arguing that EPA hasn’t done enough research, that the studies it’s relying on are out of date, and that there’s too much uncertainty about hazards and exposures to toxic chemicals. But EPA should not let industry complaints stand in the way of its mission, and it should publish an expansive list with precaution in mind.

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