According to a December 2022 article from ProPublica, the United States is failing to ban and regulate harmful chemicals. Journalists Neil Bedi, Sharon Lerner, and Kathleen McGory explain how the underfunded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the too-powerful chemical industry are responsible for countless cases of harmful chemical exposure.
The head of chemical regulation at the EPA, Michal Freedhoff, admitted to decades of regulatory failure on behalf of her department. Freedhoff blames the department’s inaction on barriers created by the Trump administration, including a lack of funding and staffing shortages. However, there are broader failures at play. Through various interviews with environmental leaders around the globe, ProPublica uncovered a half century’s worth of legislation, lawsuits, EPA documents, oral histories, chemical databases, and global regulatory records to expose the institutional failure to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.
The first responsible party in America’s failure to act is the chemical industry, which played a major role in drafting the Toxic Substances Control Act, which gave the EPA regulatory authority to ban or restrict the use of chemicals that pose serious health risks. However, the chemical industry’s involvement in the drafting of the 1976 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 finalized bill allowed over 60,000 chemicals to remain on the market without being vetted for health risks. Notably, the regulations that were selected were chosen because they did not inconvenience companies. Some toxins that were exempted from regulation include asbestos, hexabromocyclododecane, and trichloroethylene.
Since the government has failed to ban these chemicals, they have remained on the market and have contributed to thousands of deaths. One victim in particular, 13-year-old Emma Grace Findley, was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor after being exposed to TCE (trichloroethylene). Three months after the diagnosis, Findley died at home in her mother’s arms. Following her death, many other children from the same community, where high concentrations of TCE were found, began developing rare forms of cancer.
In response to the cases, the EPA attempted to ban the chemical in 2016. However, proposals were shelved by the Trump administration after prominent industry leaders filed complaints. Since then, Biden’s EPA is reassessing the proposal to impose strict regulations against TCE. They have yet to finalize their assessment of the chemical before drafting regulations.
One reason why chemicals are particularly difficult to regulate is that it is hard to prove whether or not they are harmful. This is partly because it takes time to collect data and conduct studies to assess specific chemicals’ health impacts. One strategy to combat this is the Kid Safe Chemicals Act, first introduced in 2005, which would have required companies to reassess the safety of their chemicals after three years of use. The bill also proposed that the EPA evaluate an additional 300 unregistered chemicals by 2010, and thousands more by 2020. However, after industry lobbyists complained that the act would stifle innovation, legislators ended up enacting a much milder version of the original bill.
Another reason for the lack of regulations is due to the EPA’s industry-friendly employees. Throughout its lifetime, the EPA has hired numerous industry-affiliated individuals to fill scientist positions and high-ranking roles. One of the many industry-affiliated employees is Todd Stedeford, a lawyer and toxicologist who has been hired by the EPA on multiple occasions. Before his work with the EPA, Stedeford worked for Albemarle Corporation, a company that was one of the top global manufacturers of flame retardants. Many of these chemicals have been linked to neurological harm, hormone disruption, and cancer. According to a Chicago Tribune investigation from 2012, Albemarle and two affiliated manufacturers created, funded, and oversaw a scam that deceived consumers about the efficacy and safety of their flame retardants. After Stedeford left, he was hired by the EPA and became head of the program that oversaw risks associated with chemicals, including the flame retardants used by Albemarle.
A handful of corporate outlets have reported on the EPA’s failure to regulate toxic chemicals, including the Washington Post, Bloomberg Law, and NPR. However, none of them have been explicitly critical of the relationship between the EPA and the chemical industry.
Source: 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)
Editor’s Note: For prior Project Censored coverage of this topic, featuring reporting by Sharon Lerner, see EPA Withheld Reports on Dangerous Chemicals, story #3 from Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2023.