Last one out the door? EPA releases health assessment of TCE: Chemical industry and its allies continue to press EPA and the White House for a moratorium

Today EPA finalized its health assessment for the toxic solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), a notorious chemical that causes cancer and non-cancer health effects.   Believe it or not, it has taken EPA more than 20 years to issue this update, largely due to interference and opposition by the chemical industry, and several federal agencies (DOD and DOE) that are responsible for helping to create hundreds of waste site contaminated with TCE.  My colleague Jennifer Sass has a great blog summarizing that sad and sordid history.

The updated TCE assessment has been a long-time coming, and the EPA, including Administrator Lisa Jackson, and the IRIS staff scientists deserve great credit for sticking with it, and overcoming enormous political pressure, to get the job done.  Issuance of the updated TCE assessment must be counted as a victory, particularly for the local activists across the country who have waged long and often lonely campaigns to get their communities cleaned-up, and who have suffered illness and death of family and friends due to exposure to TCE.

The win in the battle over EPA’s health assessment of TCE is of course part of a larger war the chemical industry continues to wage against independent and government science to block or discredit all avenues of information that might disclose and document the harm to public health and the environment posed by toxic chemicals.  One of the central battlegrounds for this war has been EPA’s IRIS program – which prepares chemical health assessments that are then used by federal and state regulators to set health standards for drinking water, air emissions and cleaning up contaminated soil.  It is the IRIS program that released today’s assessment. EPA has several other long-standing assessments pending, including those for formaldehyde, arsenic, styrene, and tetrachlorethylene (AKA “perc”).  Each of these has been the subject of unending attacks from the chemical industry, just like TCE.  For example:

The industry has called upon EPA Administrator Jackson to stall its assessment of hexavalent chromium – the chemical that was the subject of the real-life battle of Erin Brockovich – pending the outcome of several industry-funded studies that it asserts will exonerate the chemical.

Industry also continues to fight EPA’s assessment of styrene – and has opened another front in that battle – by suing the National Toxicology Program (NTP) over the conclusion in its Report on Carcinogens that styrene is reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans.  Rumors persist that, in addition to the court challenge, the industry is trying to attach a rider to an appropriations bill that will require the NTP to send its report to the National Academy of Sciences for review. 

Earlier this summer, the industry distorted a report by the National Academy of Sciences – which was critical of some aspects of EPA’s draft formaldehyde assessment – and used it as an excuse to call for a moratorium on EPA issuing any additional IRIS assessments.  The industry has pressed the White House repeatedly to impose the moratorium on EPA. 

And earlier this week, (E&E Daily, subscription required) Senators James Inhofe and David Vitter sent a letter to EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, Paul Anastas to “request” that he suspend the IRIS review process “for all current reviews where serious concerns have been raised.” (My Translation: where industry has raised objections to draft assessments that suggest a greater harm posed by high-volume chemicals than had previously been established).

It would be nice to think that the White House is going to stick by the Administrator and the EPA and repel the chemical industry’s attack on the IRIS program (and the Report on Carcinogens) and take a stand for public health.   However, based upon its record so far, there is little reason for optimism on that front.

Today is a day to appreciate what EPA has accomplished, and to plan the next steps forward for protecting the public health from unsafe exposure to TCE.  But we’ll also need to keep a close watch to make sure EPA – and the IRIS program in particular – is allowed to continue to operate independently, and is not delayed or derailed by the chemical industry or its allies in Congress and the White House.