5 ways chemical safety is eroding under Trump

Richard Denison

Editor’s note: This post was updated on May 13, 2019.

In June 2016, Congress had the rare success of passing bipartisan legislation to update our nation’s badly broken chemical safety system. It finally gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the power to strengthen health protections for American families.

Fast-forward nearly three years and the implementation of that law is in extreme jeopardy.

The Trump administration is systematically weakening the EPA and seeking to dismantle key new authorities and mandates Congress gave it under the reformed Toxic Substances Control Act. This with the goal of shifting critical policies to serve the chemical industry’s agenda instead of protecting public health.

Here are five actions Trump’s handpicked political appointees have already taken to undermine the law – potentially setting us back decades.

1. Blocking, weakening bans of 3 chemicals

In January 2017, the EPA proposed to ban high-risk uses of three dangerous chemicals: methylene chloride, N-methylpyrrolidone and trichloroethylene. Methylene chloride, for one, is responsible for more than 50 deaths in recent years from its use in paint strippers.

Less than a year later, with a new president in the White House, the EPA shelved the bans, two of them indefinitely, by moving them from active to “long-term action” status.

A delaying action on methylene chloride for over two years and only in the face of pressure from families who have lost loved ones to the chemical, the agency finally issued a severely weakened ban that leaves those Americans most at risk – workers – unprotected from the deadly chemical.

Such retrenchments go against the very spirit and goal of the 2016 chemical safety reform.

2. Issued illegal rules for implementing TSCA

One of the first orders of business under the 2016 Lautenberg Act was for the EPA to issue “framework rules” governing how the reformed law should work for years to come.

The proposed rules – released at the tail end of the Obama administration – were fair and faithful to the law. But the final rules published in July 2017 did a U-turn from those that had been proposed and now reflect the wish list of the chemical industry.

They are also patently illegal, which is why we’re suing the EPA and have already racked up one victory.

3. Reversed course on chemical reviews

After the new law passed, the EPA immediately began to conduct the more robust reviews of new chemicals before they can enter the market, as the new law called for.

It also planned to conduct broad reviews of all uses of chemicals already in commerce. But in response to industry demands, the EPA reversed course to instead conduct stripped-down reviews of new and existing chemicals. This will allow the agency to avoid imposing protective measures.

These changes circumvent clear requirements in the law and essentially return America to an era where few chemicals were adequately assessed or tested for safety as a condition of entering or staying on the market. Meanwhile, the public has been kept in the dark.

4. …and two more actions setting us back

The administration’s strategy for undermining chemical safety has two more components that – while not directly related to the 2016 chemical safety law – further achieve this objective.

By sidelining the science conducted by critical EPA programs on chemicals like formaldehyde, and by stacking the agency with industry cronies, the Trump administration is crippling implementation and enforcement of environmental and public health laws.

This is sadly consistent with its overall goal of elevating industry interests over the protection of our health.

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