#3 – Toxic Chemicals Continue to Go Unregulated in the United States

by Shealeigh
Published: Last Updated on

The United States consistently fails to ban and regulate harmful chemicals, ProPublica reported in December 2022. Neil Bedi, Sharon Lerner, and Kathleen McGrory explained how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the chemical industry are responsible for causing the United States to become “a global laggard in chemical regulation.”

Michal Freedhoff, the EPA’s head of chemical regulation, conceded to decades of regulatory failure, blaming the agency’s inaction on barriers created by the Trump administration, including funding and staffing shortages. However, ProPublica’s investigation revealed broader issues at play. Through interviews with environmental experts and analysis of a half century’s worth of legislation, lawsuits, EPA documents, oral histories, chemical databases, and regulatory records, ProPublica uncovered the longstanding institutional failure to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.

Although the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gave the EPA regulatory authority to ban or restrict the use of chemicals that pose serious health risks, the chemical industry’s involvement in drafting the bill was so extensive that one EPA administrator joked that the law “should have been named after the DuPont executive who went over the text line by line,” ProPublica reported. The law required the EPA “to always choose regulations that were the ‘least burdensome’ to companies. These two words would doom American chemical regulation for decades,” Bedi, Lerner, and McGrory wrote.

In 2016, Congress amended the law to remove the “least burdensome” language, but that statute too was seen as “company-friendly.” Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) stated that the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry lobbying group, was an originator of the draft bill, a claim that has been denied by the ACC and a congressional sponsor of the bill, ProPublica reported.

In the meantime, over sixty thousand chemicals remained on the market for years without being vetted for health risks. Some toxins that were originally exempted from regulation include asbestos and trichloroethylene (TCE). ProPublica noted that “asbestos is only one of many toxic substances that are linked to problems like cancers, genetic mutations and fetal harm and that other countries have banned, but the United States has not.”

After the 2016 removal of the “least burdensome” language, “the EPA named TCE as one of its 10 high-priority chemicals and tried to propose a ban on high-risk uses that year,” according to the ProPublica report. But after industry complaints, the proposal was shelved by the Trump administration, which decided instead to “reassess” TCE. ProPublica noted that in July 2022, the EPA’s draft assessment “found that 52 of 54 uses of TCE present an unreasonable risk to human health.”

Chemicals are difficult to regulate because the United States still uses a “risk-based” approach in which chemicals are “innocent until proven guilty.” This approach “puts the burden on government officials to prove that a chemical poses unreasonable health risks before restricting it,” which can take years, ProPublica explained. By contrast, in 2007 the European Union (EU) “switched to a more ‘hazard-based’ approach, which puts the burden on chemical companies to prove that their products are safe.” Under this “no data, no market” approach, the EU has banned or restricted more than a thousand dangerous chemicals.

Another reason for lax US regulations is the burdensome process that encumbers even high-priority chemicals, including asbestos and TCE. Each chemical must undergo a lengthy assessment protocol, but the underfunded EPA cannot keep pace, especially in the face of industry resistance. “The whole regulatory process is designed to be slow and to be slowed down by those opposed to regulation,” said Joel Tickner, a leading expert on chemical policy who was interviewed by ProPublica, “Frankly, unless EPA doubled their size, they can’t do much with the resources they have.”

ProPublica also highlighted industry-friendly staffing practices at the EPA. Specifically, “the EPA has a long history of hiring scientists and top officials from the companies they are supposed to regulate, allowing industry to sway the agency’s science from the inside.” The revolving door contributes to “the sense that industry science is the best science, which is very much in line with regulators deferring to industry-funded studies showing there isn’t cause for concern,” said Alissa Cordner, author of Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health, who was quoted by ProPublica.

In a related story, IFLScience reported in June 2023 on an Annals of Global Health study based on decades of secret industry documents about PFAS—so-called “forever chemicals”—showing that “the chemical industry just like the tobacco and oil industries were aware of the dangers of the product they were making but willingly suppressed the knowledge as it would hurt their bottom line.” Meanwhile, governments and people pay the price. According to a May 2023 article in DCReport, the global societal costs of PFAS alone are over $17 trillion per year.

A handful of corporate outlets have reported on the EPA’s slowness to regulate certain toxic chemicals, including the Washington Post and the New York Times [Note also: Timothy Puko, “EPA Struggles to Ban Asbestos, Other Chemicals Years After Congress Granted New Powers,” Washington Post, February 19, 2023; Eric Lipton, “Public Health vs. Economic Growth: Toxic Chemical Rules Pose Test for Biden,” New York Times, March 16, 2023], occasionally noting business opposition to proposed new rules and the downsides to industry. However, none have highlighted the systemic failures wrought by the EPA and the chemical industry.

Neil Bedi, Sharon Lerner, and Kathleen McGrory, “Why the U.S. Is Losing the Fight to Ban Toxic Chemicals,” ProPublica, December 14, 2022.

Student Researcher: Reagan Haynie (Loyola Marymount University)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)