TSCA

EPA Takes Important Step in Assessing Chemical Risk

Earlier today, EPA made public a final risk assessment on a number of uses of the chemical, Trichloroethylene, or TCE, as it is more commonly known. The risk assessment indicated health risks from TCE to consumers using spray aerosol degreasers and spray fixatives used for artwork. It can pose harm to workers when TCE is used as a degreaser in small commercial shops and as a stain remover in dry cleaners. It has been more than 28 years since we last issued a final risk assessment for an existing chemical.

EPA conducted the TCE risk assessment as part of a broader effort to begin assessing chemicals and chemical uses that may pose a concern to human health and the environment under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is this country’s 38-year old chemicals management legislation, which is badly in need of modernization

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Chemical Spill in West Virginia Offers Opportunity to Learn About and Improve Chemical Safety in America

By Maya Nye

On the early morning of January 9, a citizen complaining of a strong “black licorice” smell alerted officials to a chemical leak at the Freedom Industries site that seeped into West Virginia’s Elk River a mile and a half upstream of the state’s largest water intake.  It wasn’t until hours later that a ban was placed on water use for over 300,000 people across nine West Virginia counties.  Schools shut down. Hospitals cancelled non-essential surgeries.  Restaurants were forced to close leaving many people out of work.  The local economy nearly ground to a halt.

Untitled-1The chemical that leaked from the Freedom Industries site, crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used in the processing of coal-fired energy production.  It is one of 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), many of which can pose serious consequences for human health.

This is not a new issue in West Virginia: chemical contamination has been a concern in this area for a long time.  This 25-mile stretch of West Virginia’s Untitled-2Kanawha River has been nicknamed “chemical valley” for its chemical manufacturing industry.  In fact, many incidents in this valley over the years have served as the focal point for reform to national chemical safety and security policy, including a 1985 aldicarb oxime leak that led to national Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Laws and the implementation of the United States Chemical Safety Board.  In the wake of this latest spill, the communities around the Elk River in West Virginia also have an opportunity to spur action on chemical safety.

In response to the incident, the West Virginia State Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring greater regulation of aboveground storage tanks in zones surrounding drinking water intakes, as well as requiring updated source water protection plans.  This is a good start towards improving the safety and security of drinking water supplies.

However, this incident could provide the basis for further action at the national level. That’s why in February, I travelled with my colleague Stephanie Tyree with the West Virginia Community Development Hub to Denver to join our Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform partners at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) Conference to seek national support for our home state of West Virginia.  As a result of our testimonies, the NEJAC responded to our request and agreed to advocate on our behalf for a listening session of the President’s Executive Order 13650 to be held in Charleston, West Virginia.

Untitled-3The public has a right to know what dangers exist in their communities in order to make informed decisions about their individual health and the health of their families. It is now mid-April, more than 90 days since the spill, and the crisis is still not over.  The odor is still faintly detected in some homes.  Schools have recently gone back to serving tap water to the dismay of many parents, and most people are not bathing in or drinking the water for fear of unknown health risks. We hope that the West Virginia incident will better inform chemical safety and security laws across the country and ensure that they protect families and workers in all communities.

Maya Nye is the President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS), a 501c4 non-profit community organization active in community affairs for over 30 years dedicated to promoting international human rights pertaining to chemical safety through education and advocacy.  

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Closing the Carpet Loop(hole)

My children are teenagers now, but it seems like yesterday they were toddlers crawling around on the carpet.   It makes you wonder about children’s exposure to  the chemicals that make up the synthetic materials in carpets.  While most of these chemicals pose no risk to human health or the environment (due to their properties and how they are used in the making of consumer products), some do.

Some chemicals used in carpets to resist soil and stains have been found to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in humans and animals— posing potential long-term health risks. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Working to Protect Americans from Toxic Chemicals and Spurring Innovation in the Business Community

Our approach to chemical safety in this country is in dire need of reform. EPA’s tools under our current chemicals management law (the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA) are outdated, time-consuming and have left thousands of chemicals, some of which we encounter in our daily lives, not properly evaluated for health impacts.  While we work for reform of this outdated law, EPA’s goal is to provide chemical information in new ways and create useful tools so American business, environmental groups and the American people can make informed choices and use safer chemicals.

Today we launched ChemView, a web-based tool to help companies make safer chemical choices. I know that businesses and consumers need to make chemical decisions, whether they are product manufacturers choosing between chemicals for a new consumer product, retailers selecting products to carry on their shelves, or consumers choosing which product to purchase in the grocery store.  ChemView will facilitate safer decision-making and provide businesses with the information they need to make safer choices for consumer and commercial products.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Making Sure Chemicals Around Us are Safe

By Jim Jones, Acting Assistant Administrator, OCSPP

Chemicals are found in most everything we use and consume— from plastics, to medicine, to cleaning products, and flame retardants in our furniture and clothing. They can be essential for our health, our well being, our prosperity and our safety— it’s no understatement to say that the quality of life we enjoy today would be impossible without chemicals. However, our understanding of chemical safety is constantly evolving and there remain significant gaps in our scientific knowledge regarding many chemicals and their potentially negative impacts on our health, and the environment.

While you may be familiar with the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts— you may not be as familiar with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the environmental statute enacted in 1976 to regulate all chemicals manufactured and used in the U.S. When TSCA was enacted, it grandfathered in, without any evaluation, the 62,000 chemicals in commerce that existed in 1976.

Unlike the laws for drugs and pesticides, TSCA does not have a mandatory program where the EPA must conduct a review to determine the safety of existing chemicals. TSCA is the only major environmental law that has not been modernized. The process of requiring testing through rulemaking chemical-by-chemical has proven burdensome and time consuming.

Compared to 30 years ago, we have a better understanding of how we are exposed to chemicals and the distressing health effects some chemicals can have – especially on children. At the same time, significant gaps exist in our scientific knowledge of many chemicals, including those like flame retardants. Increasingly, studies are highlighting the health risks posed by certain chemicals and recent media coverage has heightened public awareness about the safety of flame retardants.

As part of EPA’s efforts to assess chemical risks, we will begin evaluating 20 flame retardants in 2013 in order to improve our understanding of the potential risks of this class of chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible. Over the years, EPA has also taken a number of regulatory and voluntary efforts, including negotiating the voluntary phase-outs of several toxic flame retardants. EPA’s review of and action on flame retardants has spanned over two decades and while these are important steps forward, the long history of EPA’s action on flame retardants is tied in no small part to the shortcomings of TSCA and stands as a clear illustration of the need for TSCA reform.

We have the right to expect that the chemicals found in products that we use every day are safe and provide benefits without hidden harm. It is critical that we close the knowledge gaps and provide this assurance under a reformed, 21st century version of TSCA.

About the author: Jim Jones is the Acting Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is responsible for managing the office which implements the nation’s pesticide, toxic chemical, and pollution prevention laws. The office has an annual budget of approximately $260 million and more than 1,300 employees. Jim’s career with EPA spans more than 24 years. From April through November 2011, Jim served as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. He has an M.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a B.A. from the University of Maryland, both in Economics.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Just One Word….Plastics

I still remember the brief exchange in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” The actor Walter Brooke insisted on giving the young Dustin Hoffman one piece of advice: “Plastics….There’s a great future in plastics….” I guess this just shows my age. However, I still recall the time when most of the containers for household detergents and common hygiene products were made of glass instead of the more commonly used plastics that we see nowadays. During the past decades, advances in the petrochemical industry have led to positive uses for plastics in the fields of medicine, construction, automotive, packaging, and many others. The innovative usage of plastics has fundamentally changed our world. Unfortunately, its proliferation has had unintended consequences.

Today, plastics are a constant in our lives. From beverage containers, household items to packaging, plastics are everywhere. Ultimately, many of these items are discarded on a daily basis and they end up as trash in our landfills or oceans. For example, in the year 2007, almost 12.1 percent of the total municipal solid waste in the United States came from 31 million tons of plastics. Since plastics do not easily break down into simpler components, they become virtually everlasting in the environment. Increasing awareness of the situation is just the first step in addressing the problem. Recycling deals with just one area. Technological advances are only part of the solution.

That brings me to another aspect of the preponderance of plastics: their toll on the environment. The adverse effects of plastics are not solely related to the tonnage of plastic debris produced yearly. Moreover, the negative impacts on human health and the environment stem from some of the chemicals added to plastics during the manufacturing process.  Recently, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson outlined the Obama Administration’s principles for reforming the legislation commonly known as TSCA, the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act.  In a recent speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson spoke of the need to fix the weaknesses in TSCA with a new chemical risk management law. The planets seem to be aligning in the right direction. Important players in government, the private sector, health and environmental organizations all seem to agree that the time for reform is now.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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