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Toxic Corruption: The Chemical Industry Keeps Pulling EPA's Strings

Protecting public health was once an EPA priority—now it's being treated as just another obstacle to maximizing corporate profit

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks to staff at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters on July 11, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Even though Scott Pruitt, the disgraced former director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is gone, the agency remains in the thralls of aggressive lobbying by the chemical industry. Under his acting replacement, Andrew Wheeler, a former chemical and coal industry lobbyist, the agency is now poised to fundamentally weaken how the federal government determines the health and safety of some of the most dangerous chemicals on the market.

As a result of a law passed by Congress in 2016, for the first time ever we saw a chance for the EPA to improve how it reviews the potential toxicity of hundreds of chemicals and determine how best to address their use in a wide variety of commonly used consumer products.

The agency is starting with 10 chemicals—used in everything from plastics to paint strippers to dry cleaning products—including four that mimic hormones when they make their way into the human body (“endocrine disrupting chemicals,” or EDCs). Studies have linked EDC exposures to infertility, breast and prostate cancer, diabetes and obesity, increased rates of dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and a variety of other diseases.

But now, the upcoming review will be overseen by Nancy Beck, the former chief lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Pruitt hired Beck in 2017 as deputy head of the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, using an arcane loophole allowing her to evade the ethics pledge meant to prevent White House officials from working on issues they had lobbied on in the previous two-year period.

Since that time, Beck has been instrumental in backtracking EPA positions on the adverse health impacts of more than a dozen hazardous chemicals while effectively chipping away at key environmental laws, exposing millions of Americans to more cancer-causing chemicals in our food, water, and products.

Unsurprisingly then, the EPA has proposed excluding from consideration the potential harm caused by chemical exposure through the air, ground, or water. Instead, only direct contact will be used to determine a chemical’s threat level—particularly endangering vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, seniors, workers, and those with chronic diseases. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the EPA’s proposed new risk analysis won’t take into account an estimated 68 million pounds a year of chemical emissions.

The agency also plans to delay or scrap proposed bans on a host of toxic chemicals, including uses of the grease-removing solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), an EDC that has been linked to kidney cancer, hormone disruption, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and liver cancer. The destruction wrought by TCE has been so severe, Americans from across the country who have been harmed by this chemical recently congregated in D.C. to join Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to demand the EPA keep its promise and ban it. TCE has contaminated the drinking water for 14 million Americans in 37 states.  

EDCs contradict the classic, dose-makes-poison understanding of toxic chemicals. In 2012,  Laura Vandenberg, the lead author of a major study on EDCs, stated that there are “no safe doses for these hormone-altering chemicals.” The author also expressed concern that government “safety” levels for such chemicals have been incorrect since the substances have never been tested for low-level effects.

Protecting public health was once an EPA priority—now it’s being treated as just another obstacle to maximizing corporate profit. This radical departure from the agency’s core mission means chemical industry executives stand to make millions while ordinary Americans will be exposed to more toxic chemicals.

The EPA is accepting public comments until Aug. 16. Already, a broad coalition of environmental, public health, and consumer rights organizations representing millions of Americans are demanding that the EPA does its job: protect people and the environment, not corporate interests. Rest assured, we will keep up the pressure. And so should you.

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Ansje Miller

Ansje Miller is Director of Policy and Partnerships at theCenter for Environmental Health (CEH). In that role, she represents CEH with elected officials, regulators, and business leaders as well as directs the activities in the Eastern States office. For over 20 years, Ms. Miller has led both state and national advocacy coalitions and has led successful legislative and regulatory campaigns to promote environmental health leading to the reduction of exposures from toxic chemicals and efforts to mitigate climate change and promote renewable energy.

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