What happened: According to a recent analysis, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is consistently violating congressional law in how it reviews the health and safety implications for newly manufactured chemicals. For instance, the EPA has repeatedly allowed companies to conceal health and safety studies about new chemicals from the public.
Why it matters: Considering that one of the EPA’s primary duties is to safeguard the public from potentially dangerous chemicals, it is troubling that the agency is restricting and concealing vital scientific information from the public on substances that have the potential to cause immense harm.
Instead of following the procedures outlined in the Toxic Substances Control Act, which requires the public disclosure of health and safety information on newly manufactured chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is consistently concealing or restricting this pertinent scientific information from the public. Earthjustice and the Environmental Defense Fund reviewed in detail over 200 new chemical applications submitted between August 2016 and April 2019, and reviewed approximately 1,700 notices of new chemicals published in the federal register in early 2020. In their analysis, they found that when the EPA assessed the health or environmental risks posed by new chemicals, the agency consistently failed to inform, restricted, or even hid health and safety information from the public.
Specifically, they reported three findings, all of which violate the EPA’s required duties under the Toxic Substances Control Act. First, the analysis found that when the EPA is deliberating on whether to approve a new chemical application submitted by a manufacturer, the EPA alerts the public an average of 87 days later. Because the agency is legally required to approve or disapprove the chemical within 90 days, this essentially gives the public only three days to comment. In one out of six cases, the EPA alerted the public only after the new chemical was approved.
Second, the analysis revealed that, for the 204 chemicals reviewed in detail, the EPA unlawfully withheld or redacted from the public hundreds of health and safety studies, including 150 scientific studies in their entirety. Third, despite a mandatory requirement for the agency to review at least 25 percent of the confidential business information claims made by chemical manufacturers, the EPA has only completed reviews of 27 of the hundreds of reviews the agency should have completed.
According to the analysis, one prominent example of this occurred for a new type of PFAS chemical. PFAS are a class of toxic industrial chemicals that have contaminated the groundwater and drinking water of communities across the nation, especially at military bases and in marginalized communities, and can cause several serious illnesses including cancers and reproductive disease. We considered a previous incident involving PFAS, when the White House tried to bury a CDC health report because it was a “potential public relations nightmare,” as an attack on science by the Trump administration.
In early 2017, an unknown US company submitted an application to the EPA for permission to produce a new type of PFAS chemical. EPA scientists weighed in during the deliberation process and described immense health harms that could occur, including respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, and the triggering of DNA changes in cells that could lead to cancer. However, the EPA under the Trump administration ignored their own scientists and approved the PFAS chemical application in April 2019 without any restrictions. The EPA withheld from the public almost all documents submitted by the company during the approval process, including health and safety information.
Earthjustice, the Environmental Defense Fund, and a coalition of environmental groups have issued a lawsuit against the EPA on the basis of this analysis, contending that the agency is violating its congressionally mandated duties to inform the public of new chemicals being deliberated on. The analysis additionally showed that there were numerous occasions when the EPA hid from public scrutiny the health and safety studies that underlines the deliberation of these new chemicals. By concealing this science-based evidence, communities near the manufacturing sites of new chemicals are deprived of information they need to protect their health and safety. The EPA’s lack of transparency on new chemicals not only violates the laws governing chemical safety, but it also endangers the lives of thousands of people across the nation.