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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Scraps Chemical Safety Rules

Air Date: Week of

PBA can be found in many common household products, including the lining of some food cans (photo: Bigstockphoto.com)

Blocked for years by the White House Office of Management and Budget, two chemical safety rules have been dropped altogether by the EPA. Environmental Defense Fund’s Richard Denison tells host Steve Curwood why this is bad news for public health.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Certain synthetic chemicals can mimic hormones and disrupt human health and development, but the Obama Administration is now blocking rules that would label such chemicals and require public notification of the results of any research on their health effects. The EPA proposed the rules years ago, but it has now decided to withdraw them after they were bottled up in the White House Office of Management and Budgets, or OMB.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has been investigating what it calls the “human cost of regulatory paralysis,” and scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund and other NGOs are urging the Senate committee to probe why these rules were dropped. Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund explained the significance of the rule regarding hormone mimicking chemicals.
DENISON: So this was a pretty simple rule that would simply have had EPA identify publicly several chemicals to be officially deemed chemicals of concern based on a finding that these chemicals may present a risk to human health and or the environment. And they proposed to list bisphenol A, some phthalates that are used as plastic additives and in cosmetics and other products, and some brominated flame retardants used in furniture foam and computer casings and the like.

CURWOOD: Well, what is the current scientific thinking about bisphenol A and phthalates and those flame retardants? What are the dangers?

Richard Denison (photo: Environmental Defense Fund)

DENISON: So each of those chemicals is increasingly of concern because of evidence that even fairly small doses of these chemicals can interfere with our normal functioning of the systems in our body that keep us healthy. These chemicals act by manner that are similar to the way in which hormones act in our bodies, and they can actually interfere with the normal development of our reproductive system, our neurological system, our immune system and so forth. The developing fetus and infants and very young children are particularly susceptible to those effects. This is all new science, and there’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but I think it’s a major warning sign that the evidence that the evidence those chemicals are safe is likely to having a significant aggregate impact on our health.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the other rule. I understand it would compel companies to divulge more about the ingredients in their chemicals, if I have that right?

DENISON: That’s close. What this rule would have done is to require that if a company submitted a health and safety study on a new chemical to EPA, that study would have to be made public, and the identity of that chemical that was the subject of the study would also have to be made public. There’s a tension between company’s legitimate interest in protecting the identity of the chemicals that they’re developing before those chemicals get on the market, and the competing interest of the public and workers and consumers to have a right to know about the health and environmental impacts of chemicals they might be exposed to. I think that made this rule controversial, and it ended up in limbo for two years - excuse me, almost four years - in the review process at the White House, and ended up being one the two rules that EPA withdrew last week.

CURWOOD: Now, this isn’t an unique situation: a number of rules have been held up by the White House regarding the EPA.

DENISON: That’s right, Steve. These two rules being withdrawn are indicative of a much broader systematic delay by the White House in reviewing rules that EPA is developing under clear statutory authority. So the dispute here is not whether or not EPA has the authority to issue rules; the dispute is over the ability of a White House office to interfere with the normal rulemaking process that EPA would otherwise have to follow.

Many of these proposals that are languishing at OMB, or have been under review far longer than the executive order that gave OMB this power allow are simply proposals that have yet to be even vetted through the public comment process that is the norm to be used with every rule that gets developed. That ought to be the way the process works instead of a small office buried within the White House behind closed doors simply sitting on these rules and refusing to clear them so that they can be proposed for public comment. That’s a very non-transparent and I think non-democratic process and yet it’s become a routine practice especially with EPA rules governing chemical safety.

CURWOOD: Why do you think the Obama administration, an administration that pledged to have transparency in these agencies, is backing down on this type of rulemaking?

DENISON: Well, it’s baffling. It’s a very good question, Steve. I do think in general there’s been lots of pressure coming from Congress to scale back regulations, and I think in some ways probably some of this response by the White House has been a political one.

The tragedy here though is these are not examples of heavy command and control regulation. In fact, the power of EPA’s using this authority to simply tell the market these are chemicals of concern, and we expect that if you’re going to continue to want to use them or produce them, you need to be providing the information necessary for us to determine that those uses are safe, that would have sent a very good signal to the market that, in fact, there’s growing concern about these chemicals, and that it should be the onus of those who want to continue to use them to demonstrate their safety rather than consumers in the public bearing the burden should they prove to be unsafe.

CURWOOD: Richard Denison is a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. Thanks for joining us today.

DENISON: I'm so happy to have been here, Steve. Thanks so much.



Richard Denison’s page at the Environmental Defense Fund

Read the Richard Denison’s blog post on the EPA’s decision

Read the letter that Richard Denison and others wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee


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