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A Pro-Industry EPA Could Undermine New Chemical Safety Law

"Tetrachloroethylene, better known as PERC, is a solvent used in dry cleaning fluid by approximately 28,000 U.S. dry cleaners." (Photo: Tom Simpson/flickr/cc)

By releasing the first 10 chemicals to be reviewed under the new federal chemical safety law, the Environmental Protection Agency reminds us of what’s at stake – and how decisions made by the incoming Trump administration could jeopardize Americans' health.

"If the EPA’s top spots are packed with pro-industry officials, Americans may never have the safety protections in place that we deserve."

Many of the chemicals identified by the EPA are found in consumer products and have been linked to cancer. But the team deciding how the incoming administration will implement the new law is led by Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-funded front group that has consistently downplayed the risks toxic chemicals pose.

The front group's so-called experts deem chemicals posing serious health hazards safe – including arsenic, mercury, phthalates and formaldehyde. The Institute even laments that the notorious killer asbestos might be among the first “casualties” of the new law, which gives the EPA new power to review and regulate the most dangerous chemicals.

If people like Ebell, who is not a scientist, are put in charge of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, there’s no telling how the science will be twisted to serve the chemical industry. And if the EPA gets it wrong with these first 10 chemicals, there could be serious consequences.

Several of the chemicals on the list are found in consumer products:

  • 1,4-dioxane is a likely carcinogen, can lead to irritation in the respiratory tract, and cause damage to the kidneys, liver and brain. It’s used in dyes, varnishes and waxes. The chemical can also contaminate cosmetics and cleaners because it is created as a byproduct of chemicals sometimes used in those products. In fact, there are more than 9,000 cosmetics in EWG’s Skin Deep® database with chemicals that may produce 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct. While technology exists to strip out 1,4-dioxane contamination, there is no requirement to do so or mandatory reporting, making it nearly impossible to know which companies have taken action.
  • 1-bromopropane, is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” and is linked to reproductive and developmental harms. It is especially risky for women who are pregnant or of child-bearing age because even short-term exposure can harm a developing fetus. It is a powerful solvent used in degreasers, aerosol spray adhesives, aerosol spot removers, and aerosol cleaners and degreasers. 1-bromopropane is also sometimes used in dry cleaning.
  • Tetrachloroethylene, better known as PERC, is a solvent used in dry cleaning fluid by approximately 28,000 U.S. dry cleaners. It is also used in household products like water repellents, spot removers, wood cleaners, adhesives and silicone lubricants. The EPA considers PERC a probable human carcinogen and it is on California’s list of known carcinogens. It has also been linked to harmful effects on the nervous system and reproductive system, and can affect fetuses.

These chemicals and the others on the EPA’s list pose serious risks to consumers, workers and the environment. The new law should be an opportunity for the EPA to finally restrict these toxic chemicals and ensure that consumers are safe. But if the EPA’s top spots are packed with pro-industry officials, Americans may never have the safety protections in place that we deserve.

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Melanie Benesh

As EWG's Legislative Attorney, Melanie provides legislative and regulatory analysis of federal food, farm and chemical law. Melanie grew up in Omaha and received her B.A. from Marquette University. After college, she worked as a research assistant studying Fair Trade coffee in Chiapas, Mexico, and later as a community organizer for Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee. She received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in 2014, where she was an evening student, a Cutler Salzburg Fellow and served on the Georgetown Journal of International Law. She is fluent in Spanish and enjoys running, Cornhusker football and biking to work.

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