No Change in Sight: Rules to Inform the Public about Toxic Chemicals Languish in White House Purgatory

Exactly one year ago today, the EPA sent a proposal to the White House for its approval: to publish a list of three chemicals (or classes of chemicals) that EPA has determined “present or may present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment.”   The chemicals in question are Bisphenol A (BPA), a handful of phthalates, and a class of flame retardants known as PBDEs.  Congress gave EPA the authority to publish just such a list 35 years ago under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), but, so far, no such list has ever been published.

You will not be shocked to learn that the chemical industry is strongly opposed to EPA’s proposal, calling it a “blacklist.” As it happens, significant concern about these chemicals already exists in the U.S. and around the world:

  • The use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups has already been banned in the EU, Canada, China, South Africa and 9 states (Oregon may become the tenth in the next few weeks). 
  • Six of the eight phthalates in question were banned for use in children’s toys and other products by Congress three years ago.  The EU enacted a similar ban a decade earlier.
  • Certain PBDEs are already banned in Europe and phased out in the U.S.  And Wal-Mart has banned the use of PBDEs in products it sells.

So, the chemical industry’s freak out over this little list is a bit absurd.  What is even more absurd is that the White House has been sitting on this proposal for a full year.  

By now it is no secret that TSCA itself is the greatest failure of all the major environmental laws in the U.S., and has long been an object of derision both domestically and around the world. When the Obama administration took office, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson identified legislative reform of TSCA as a top health priority, but she also committed to use the limited powers EPA has under the current law to expand public knowledge about toxic chemicals, the health risks they pose, and to increase public protection from those same chemicals.  She has been true to her word.  Of course the chemical industry has opposed her every single step of the way – no surprise there -- but we (and perhaps she) didn’t count on the White House stalling even the smallest steps forward.

It would be bad enough if that were the only example of the White House stalling EPA’s efforts to expand publicly available information about chemical production, use, exposure, and potential harm, but it isn’t.  Another rule is similarly in indefinite detention. 

Last August EPA proposed changes to the amount and type of information chemical companies must report – every four years – about chemicals that they manufacture or import into the country.  It took the White House five months (from February to July) to approve EPA’s proposed changes, some of which were simply reversals of weakening changes made to the reporting requirements during the previous Administration.  Once EPA was finally allowed to publish its proposal, tens of thousands of citizens wrote the agency in support. (The chemical industry says it is a burdensome jobs killer. Who would have guessed?) 

The White House has been sitting on the final rule for four months (and counting).  Just yesterday, EPA had to suspend the current reporting period, scheduled to start June 1, because there was not enough time for companies to incorporate the new rules and meet their reporting deadlines.  In other words: the White House has, at least temporarily – needlessly -- derailed EPA efforts to expand public information about toxic chemical production, use and exposure in this country.

It is an unfortunate truism that politicians and bureaucrats inside the beltway are disconnected from the rest of the American people, out of touch, and frequently the last to know about (or respond to) people’s real concerns.  It is a big part of why politicians in general, and both parties, are held in such low regard by the American public, across the ideological spectrum. 

Here’s an example of why this might be: concern about toxic chemicals and their potential (and in some cases established) links to cancer, learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive problems, asthma and birth defects is widespread, across the economic and ideological spectrum in the U.S. With a few exceptions, members of Congress and the Obama Administration seem clueless to this fact, or at least totally disinterested.

The White House should act as though it shares the public’s concerns about toxic chemicals and health. Maybe it does.  But slow walking EPA for a year – perhaps out of fear of ruffling the chemical industry’s feathers -- is a funny way of showing it.  It’s time to change course, and pick up the pace.