5 critical EPA health rules jeopardized by “censored science”

Jennifer McPartland

 For 18 months now, the Trump administration has waged an aggressive battle against science in an effort to bolster the interests of polluters.

That same campaign to undermine truth and mislead the public has infected the politically-appointed leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – as disgraced, former Administrator Scott Pruitt and a cast of industry insiders have taken aim at the very research and science that undergirds many of America’s most fundamental public health and environmental protections.

Among their more brazen attempts to unleash polluters is the proposed “censored science” rule the EPA continues to push forward. It would effectively bar the agency from using high-quality scientific studies in the development of safeguards to address toxic exposures. That’s because the rule calls for making the data underlying those studies publicly available, even though the research often relies on personal information scientists must protect for legal and ethical reasons.

A look at just a few of the proposed – and existing – regulations in jeopardy under the proposed rule shows just how dangerous the EPA’s proposal could be to our nation.

1. Proposed bans of trichloroethylene in common degreasers

Trichloroethylene, TCE for short, can be found in multiple products such as degreasers, spot cleaners, and paints and coating products. TCE is associated with liver and kidney issues, developmental effects and various forms of cancer. In 2016, the EPA proposed two regulations to ban the use of this dangerous chemical in dry cleaning facilities.

Because the data underlying key studies used to support the ban – all of which were subject to multiple rounds of scientific peer review – are not publicly available, the proposed “censored science” rule could undermine these chemical safeguards. As a result, high-risk uses of TCE continue.

2. Proposed ban of methylene chloride in paint, coating removers

Methylene chloride exposure has resulted in dozens of deaths – several in the past year alone. Often found in paint and coating removers still available at many hardware stores nationwide, the chemical is also associated with impaired visual and motor functions, respiratory irritation, headaches and nausea. The EPA proposed a ban on the substance in 2017.

The scientific basis for this ban comes from an agency risk assessment that received extensive internal and external review, and which relied on high-quality studies whose underlying data are not publicly available. The “censored science” rule would therefore put this life-saving proposed ban in jeopardy.

3. Existing national air quality standards

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to set national air quality standards that protect the public from a variety of harmful pollutants. Limits have been set to address exposure to smog and lead, for example – pollutants that are especially dangerous to children.

These limits rely, in part, on extensive research built on confidential health data. The “censored science” proposal could thus affect EPA’s ongoing efforts to review and update these critical air quality standards. 

4. Existing formaldehyde emission limits in composite wood

Formaldehyde, known to cause respiratory irritation and cancer, is one of the most heavily used chemicals in the United States. It’s found in numerous consumer products and is widely used in resins applied to common particle-board products.

In 2016, the EPA finalized a rule establishing limits for the amount of formaldehyde that could be emitted by these composite wood products to limit exposures. Many high-quality scientific studies supported rule, including some whose data are not public.

If applied retroactively, the “censored science” rule could interfere with this and other already-existing rules.

5. Future action on hazardous chemicals in drinking water

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a large class of chemicals used to make products water or grease-resistant and can be found in everything from nonstick cookware and clothing to food packaging and adhesives. The EPA recently announced its intent to regulate two of the most well-studied PFASs, PFOA and PFOS [PDF], in drinking water.

These chemicals are associated with high cholesterol, immune effects and developmental problems along with a host of other health effects.

Much of what we know about the chemicals comes from studies of communities with contaminated drinking water. For example, the C8 Health Project assessed more than 60,000 individuals living in the Parkersburg, West Virginia, area after a major release of PFOA from a Teflon plant contaminated local water supplies.

Studies from the project revealed, among other serious health problems, an increase in testicular and kidney cancer in the Parkersburg community.

If “censored science” has its way, however, the EPA may be blocked from using critical studies such as those published under the C8 Health Project as the agency seeks to limit public exposure to these and other harmful chemicals.

We believe Americans deserve better.

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