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Trump’s Toxic Wake: 10 Ways the EPA Has Made Life More Hazardous

The Trump EPA has aggressively worked to erode and eliminate vital environmental and public health protections.

"The Trump administration has made it a priority to roll back the Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined which kinds of bodies of water are subject to the Clean Water Act," writes Benesh.

"The Trump administration has made it a priority to roll back the Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined which kinds of bodies of water are subject to the Clean Water Act," writes Benesh. 

From the beginning, the Trump administration has aggressively slashed environmental regulations. A New York Times analysis identified 100 environmental protections that have been reversed or are in the process of getting rolled back. The administration’s record on chemical safety has been especially hazardous for the health of Americans, especially children.

One year into President Trump's term, EWG detailed how the Trump administration has stacked the Environmental Protection Agency with industry lawyers and lobbyists, undermined worker safety and cooked the books on chemical safety assessments. Midway through his second year, we reported how the EPA reversed a ban on a brain-damaging pesticide, delayed chemical bans and killed a rule to protect kids from toxic PCBs in schools. Last year, we reported that the EPA had rescinded safety rules at chemical plants, rubber-stamped untested new chemicals and silenced researchers.

As Trump’s first term nears its end, things are even worse. Here are 10 more ways the Trump administration has continued to make life more toxic for Americans.

1. Failed to aggressively regulate toxic ‘forever chemicals’ 

The toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS contaminate more than 2,200 sites across the nation. Because they never break down in the environment, PFAS are often called “forever chemicals.” They build up in our bodies and are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harms and reduced effectiveness of vaccines. Even though the EPA has known about the risks from PFAS chemicals since at least 1998, they remain virtually unregulated.

In February 2019, the EPA released a toothless PFAS “action plan” that lacked deadlines for action and failed to address the use of PFAS in everyday products, contamination from PFAS air emissions or disposal of PFAS waste, among other concerns. A year and a half later, key goals from the plan, including regulating PFAS under the Superfund law and setting drinking water standards, remain unfulfilled.

When Congress stepped in and sought to designate PFOA and PFOS—the two most notorious and well-studied PFAS—as “hazardous substances” and to set deadlines for agency action, Trump threatened a veto. Trump’s EPA also weakened a rule designed to regulate PFAS in consumer products.

2. Allowed a rocket fuel chemical to stay in drinking water 

Perchlorate is a component of rocket fuel that also frequently contaminates drinking water sources. Perchlorate can interfere with thyroid function, which can also harm childhood brain development.

Almost a decade ago, the EPA determined that these harms warranted regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The agency then dragged its feet for years. In 2016, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued to force the EPA to finally set a legal limit for perchlorate in drinking water. In a court-approved consent decree, the EPA agreed to propose a standard by October 2018 and finalize it by 2019. However, the EPA sought extensions and failed to meet these deadlines.

The EPA finally proposed a drinking water standard in June 2019 but also suggested that it might not regulate perchlorate after all. A year later, the EPA withdrew its decision to regulate perchlorate in drinking water.

3. Allowed scores of new chemicals, including new toxic PFAS, onto the market without adequate oversight

In 2016, Congress substantially changed the way new chemicals are approved under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA.

Under the old law, chemicals were frequently approved by default, often without any health and safety information. As a result, unsafe chemicals were allowed to be used for years or decades before the health and environmental hazards came to light. Inadequate oversight of new chemicals can also lead to regrettable substitution – when chemicals are finally found to be unsafe, they are often replaced by unstudied chemicals that may be just as or even more toxic.

The 2016 update was supposed to fix the new chemicals program by requiring the EPA to make an affirmative safety finding on new chemicals and restrict use if industry failed to provide sufficient safety data. Nonetheless, the Trump EPA has approved scores of new chemicals in a process that lacks transparency and contravenes the 2016 law. The EPA has also ignored known health concernslimited its consideration of worker risks and denied requests for public files in the new chemicals program.

The EPA has also exploited loopholes in the new law to quickly approve new chemicals, including toxic PFAS. A recent investigation found that the EPA has been quietly approving new PFAS chemicals, through a provision known as the low volume exemption in the new chemicals program. As a result, the EPA is greenlighting new PFAS chemicals on an expedited basis, without public scrutiny. One PFAS, used in ski wax, was approved despite a finding that the chemical could “waterproof the lungs,” resulting in severe health impacts.

Since the law was updated in 2016, the EPA has reviewed more than 3,000 new chemicals submissions. More than 1,000 of these chemicals have been approved through the low volume exemption, and since 2016, manufacturers have begun producing at least 900 new chemicals, many without adequate safety data. Environmental groups have sued the EPA over its failures to protect the public and the environment from risks from new chemicals. 

4. Failed to protect workers from a deadly paint-stripping chemical

Methylene chloride is a highly toxic chemical used in paint strippers that is responsible for more than 60 deaths since 1980. In the final days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed a ban on “methylene chloride for consumer and most types of commercial paint and coating removal.”

After significant pressure from families who lost loved ones due to methylene chloride exposure, the Trump EPA eventually issued a final rule in 2019. However, the EPA narrowed the rule so that it would apply only to consumer uses of methylene chloride, not commercial uses. That means workers are not protected, even though a Center for Public Integrity investigation found that most deaths from methylene chloride take place at work.

separate EPA evaluation of methylene chloride found that manufacturing, disposal and several other uses of methylene chloride pose no “unreasonable risk.” Environmental groups have filed lawsuits challenging the rule and the recent evaluation.

5. Cooked the books on the “Civil Action” chemical 

Trichloroethylene is a chemical solvent made infamous by the book and movie “A Civil Action.” The EPA considers it to be a known carcinogen, and it is one of the primary contaminants that sickened scores of veterans who served at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina.

As with methylene chloride, in the final days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed banning three uses of TCE: spot cleaning, aerosol degreasing and vapor degreasing. In December 2017, the Trump EPA shelved these proposed bans, claiming that it would study those uses in a separate ongoing risk evaluation of TCE.

However, the EPA dramatically rewrote the accepted science on TCE in the draft risk evaluation released in February. As EWG warned in 2018, the solvents industry aggressively lobbied the EPA to ignore a key 2003 study finding that TCE causes heart deformities in developing fetuses. TCE’s connection with fetal heart defects was an important basis for the Obama EPA’s decision to ban three uses of TCE. An independent review of the EPA’s science found that “prenatal exposure to TCE can cause human cardiac defects” and that the study “remains a valid choice” for assessing risk.

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The lobbyists succeeded. The EPA’s draft risk evaluation questioned the study’s design and minimized its significance. An investigation by Reveal News compared the draft risk evaluation with a leaked earlier draft. It found that the earlier draft had relied extensively on the 2003 study and used it as a benchmark for the risk calculations. Reveal also reported that then-EPA chemicals safety chief Nancy Beck—“the scariest Trump appointee you’ve never heard of”—ordered that the risk evaluation be rewritten to downplay the risks of TCE. With the EPA giving significantly less weight to risks from fetal heart deformities, it’s unlikely the agency will finalize the proposed bans.

6. Pressured EPA scientists to drop evaluations of toxic chemicals—including formaldehyde

The Trump EPA is undermining the work of independent scientists within the Integrated Risk Information System program, known as IRIS. The program’s work is supposed to be impartial and non-political. Its scientific assessments are intended to support the work of other EPA program offices and regional offices. IRIS is a frequent target of chemical industry attacks because its independent safety assessments often don’t align with industry objectives.

In 2018, the Trump EPA tried to defund the IRIS program. EPA leadership also pressured IRIS to drop critical health assessments. In March 2019, a Government Accountability Office report disclosed that EPA leadership directed agency offices to limit the number of chemicals they wanted IRIS to review, and cut in half the number of IRIS’s ongoing or upcoming assessments.

One of the halted assessments was IRIS’s decades-long review of formaldehyde, a widely used chemical and known human carcinogen. This is surprising because former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt indicated to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January 2018 that the report was complete and ready for release. However, answering questions for the record following a 2019 Senate hearing, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said formaldehyde was “not a top priority.”

Instead of releasing the IRIS study on formaldehyde to the public, the EPA has instead decided that the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention—under the leadership of Nancy Beck—should conduct its own assessment of formaldehyde. As with TCE, this action will give the agency an opportunity to distort the science and minimize risks. Because these reviews take years, it will also significantly delay any EPA regulatory action on formaldehyde.

7. Rolled back clean water protections

Industrial chemical pollutants are often discharged into drinking water supplies. But the Trump administration has made it a priority to roll back the Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined which kinds of bodies of water are subject to the Clean Water Act. EWG’s analysis found that the Clean Water Rule, if implemented as proposed by the Obama administration, would have protected drinking water sources for more than 117 million Americans.

The EPA’s own science advisors have opposed the rollback of the Clean Water Rule, but the Trump administration repealed it in 2019, proposed its own rule in January and finalized it in April. The new rule covers far fewer bodies of water and would leave 234,000 miles of small streams unprotected. EWG estimates that at least 72 million Americans draw at least half their drinking water from small streams.

Because of the repeal, those bodies of water will no longer be subject to pollution limits. Protection for small and seasonal streams and wetlands is important because they often flow into larger bodies of water, including sources of drinking water. Polluted drinking water sources strain municipal water utilities tasked with filtering out contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and risk exposing the public to more contaminants that aren’t regulated under the act.

8. Cooked the books on asbestos 

Asbestos is a highly toxic, naturally occurring chemical linked to a particularly deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma. An estimated 40,000 Americans die every year from asbestos-related diseases. Although the toxicity of asbestos is well understood, the EPA has never actually banned most uses. The EPA attempted a ban in 1989, but most of the rule was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991.

After Congress reformed TSCA in 2016, the EPA announced that asbestos would be one of the first 10 chemicals reviewed under the new law. Many hoped that this time, the EPA would finally ban asbestos.

Instead, when the EPA released its draft risk evaluation in May, it found that several uses of asbestos, including import of asbestos and asbestos-containing products and distribution of asbestos-containing products, did not pose an unreasonable risk. The EPA made its risk determinations by ignoring exposure from “legacy” uses of asbestos, such as old insulation and building tiles. Although in November the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to fix this error, it has yet to do so.

Instead of banning asbestos, in April 2019 the EPA published a rule requiring notice and approval before manufacturers could resume using it in some applications the agency considered abandoned. However, leaked documents show that more than a dozen EPA staffers urged an outright ban on asbestos instead.

9. Proposed a loophole for toxic air pollution

In July 2019, the Trump EPA proposed to reverse a longstanding policy requiring large power plants, refineries and other industrial polluters to always meet certain strict controls, even after reducing emissions. The new rule creates a loophole in the Clean Air Act regulations that would allow large industrial facilities to reclassify themselves, from “major sources” of air pollution to “area sources.”

That change would allow them to opt out of strict pollution control standards, called “maximum achievable control technology,” and substantially increase their emissions of dangerous air pollutants. EPA’s own data shows that more than 3,900 large facilities that emit pollutants like mercury and benzene could take advantage of this loophole. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates the loophole could increase toxic air emissions by as much as 480 percent, or almost 50 million pounds per year. 

This rollback is especially alarming in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Studies have found that people who live in areas with high levels of air pollution are at greater risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

10. Continuing its quest to censor science 

In 2018, the EPA proposed a disastrous rule significantly limiting the kinds of science the agency can rely on to justify environmental regulations. The rule would have prohibited the agency from using studies that don’t make their underlying data publicly available or whose results can’t be replicated. That change would prevent the EPA from including in its future risk assessments most human health studies, because personal medical data must remain confidential. The rule would undermine studies that are foundational to clean air regulations.

The proposal sparked enormous opposition from scientists, academics and environmental health advocates. More than 600,000 public comments were submitted to the agency, the vast majority in opposition. In September 2019, the EPA dropped the proposal from its regulatory agenda.  

But the Trump EPA is at it again. In March, the agency issued a supplemental proposal that is actually worse than the original proposal. The 2018 proposal applied to all “dose response” studies, but the new proposal applies to all studies. The new proposal also applies retroactively, which means the EPA could use it to gut existing regulations.

As these actions—and dozens of others—show, the Trump EPA has aggressively worked to erode and eliminate vital environmental and public health protections. The public needs an EPA that will prioritize people and planet over polluters and profit.

Melanie Benesh

Melanie Benesh

Melanie Benesh is EWG's Legislative Attorney. She provides a legislative and regulatory analysis of federal food, cosmetics, farm, and chemical law. At Georgetown University Law Center, she was a Cutler Salzburg Fellow and served on the Georgetown Journal of International Law. After college, Benesh 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 currently co-teaches a course on public interest advocacy as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

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