A new low even for the Trump EPA on chemical safety

Richard Denison

Recent decisions by the Environmental Protection Agency are failing to protect workers from the leading cause of asthma in the workplace: a class of chemicals called isocyanates.

It's a new low in this administration’s implementation of the nation’s chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA.

First — a bit of background for understanding how this happened and why it presents an even more concerning turn in the Trump EPA’s reckless approval process for new chemicals to enter the market.

Nasty chemicals that endanger workers

Isocyanates (pronounced “eye-soh-SY’-uh-nayts”) are nasty chemicals used in various industrial processes as well as everyday materials and products.

They are dangerous when they’re left unreacted as “residuals” after manufacturing other chemicals or in products such as paints, insulation and certain plastics.

In prior new chemical reviews under TSCA, the EPA repeatedly indicated that “[i]socyanate exposure has been identified as the leading attributable cause of work-related asthma, and prevalence in the exposed workforce has been estimated at 1-20 percent” (emphasis added).

The EPA in the recent past imposed various restrictions and concentration limits on isocyanates. The conditions have included:

  • A prohibition on activities that could put the chemical into the air workers are breathing.
  • Mandatory requirements for use of respirators and gloves.
  • Strict limits on the amount of unreacted isocyanates allowed to be present in the new chemical.

But now: Few or no restrictions, no protections

Considering the high worker risks and the history of the EPA’s statements and actions on such chemicals, how has the Trump EPA been treating new chemicals with residual isocyanates?

Over the last year alone, in at least 10 such cases, the EPA has declared the chemicals “not likely to present an unreasonable risk,” clearing them for market access without requiring their manufacturers to employ any of these protections — even in cases where the EPA has specifically identified significant risks to workers.

The determinations, and lack of restrictions, are particularly astounding because they are based on the EPA’s unfounded “expectation” that employers would universally require and workers would use suitable protective equipment.

For one new isocyanate, while the Trump EPA did propose a rule that would require companies to notify the EPA before exceeding a residual concentration, the concentration level the EPA set is vastly higher than the level it has set in the past, as needed to protect health.

Trump’s EPA is caving to industry

The clear winner at least in the short term is the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council — the main trade association for chemical companies — has pressured the EPA to loosen limits on isocyanates for years.

Now, it appears its wishes are being granted — without the EPA providing any explanation for the abrupt shift in practice or any public notice and opportunity for comment.

For many of these new isocyanates, much of the information about them — who plans to make the chemical and where, how it will be used, and even the identity of the chemical itself — is withheld from the public because it is claimed to be confidential.

However, what we do know is disturbing: Often against career staff recommendations and the agency’s own risk findings, the EPA has abandoned precedent and approved numerous new chemicals with residual isocyanates to enter the market with few or no restrictions on their manufacture or use.

Once again, the EPA is caving to the chemical industry’s demands, and worker health is being left in the dust.