EPA’s failure to disclose chemical health risks draws ire

By E.A. Crunden | 01/05/2022 01:14 PM EST

Laboratory glassware.

EPA is under fire for not sharing high-risk chemical information. SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via AP Images

EPA is failing in its obligation to share critical information about the hazards of more than 1,200 chemicals on the market, according to a watchdog group.

In a complaint filed yesterday and first reported today by E&E News, the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility called on EPA to share substantial risk reports sent from industry members to the agency.

Those statements were once available to the public through an online portal, but have not been shared since the beginning of 2019. Advocates and health experts are concerned that the lack of transparency is shielding information regarding chemicals like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, among others.

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PEER filed the complaint after EPA did not respond to a public records request two months ago seeking information about the missing industry reports as well as the documents themselves. The group represents EPA scientists who say there are approximately 1,240 reports that have not been shared with the public through ChemView, which contains information about chemicals submitted to EPA.

Kyla Bennett, PEER’s science policy director, who previously worked for EPA, called the situation "appalling" and a threat to public health.

“The inability of EPA’s current management to carry out this very basic public health function suggests a disturbingly deep cluelessness about their mission," she said in a statement.

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, industry members must alert EPA within 30 days of discovering that substances may present a risk for human health or the environment. Between 2017 and 2018, for example, more than 1,000 of those reports were submitted under TSCA Section 8(e), which mandates the disclosure. The information is not considered routine and typically adds important context about health implications including cancer, birth defects, neurological harm and other severe risks.

Those reports have historically been available both internally and externally. But on Jan. 1, 2019, the Trump administration seemingly ceased posting them — a move that has continued under the Biden administration.

Asked about the 8(e) statements and the circumstances around their absence in the public portal, EPA pointed to resource limitations and a dire lack of funding for the TSCA program. The chemicals office is facing a severe staffing shortage that has hindered its work on key risk assessments, among other important areas (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2021). EPA previously had staff who worked on uploading the 8(e) submissions, but as of late last year, the agency had not had anyone in that position since 2018. Other staff at that time were consumed with work mandated by the Trump administration, which sought to revise TSCA programs in response to industry pressure.

Uploading the 8(e) reports involves a long manual process and can be time-consuming, the agency said, while emphasizing that making those documents accessible to the public remains an EPA priority.

Prior reporting by The Intercept this past November found that only one 8(e) statement had been uploaded since the beginning of 2019. PEER cited that reporting in its complaint, noting claims by agency staff that the 8(e) reports are often "filed away" rather than used to shape risk assessments for new and existing chemicals. At the time, EPA denied those comments and said the reports are always carefully reviewed.

That agency claim has drawn some scrutiny, however, in light of decisions regarding certain chemicals. For example, in October, EPA declared the PFAS compound referred to as GenX to be deeply toxic to humans. Its findings stemmed in part from 8(e) reports that had been submitted years prior (Greenwire, Oct. 25, 2021). It is unclear why the process took so long, and EPA did not clarify the rationale to E&E News by publishing time.

Robert Sussman, a former EPA political appointee who now works on environmental litigation, emphasized the importance of the 8(e) reports and noted that those submissions have revealed PFAS studies and cancer findings on formaldehyde, among other critical information.

In addition to a lack of public access, he pointed to reported internal concerns from staff who have said the documents are hard to access even by EPA employees.

"For all we know, the notices contain significant evidence of potential harm that should receive immediate attention," he said. "However, the lack of accessibility even within EPA makes it highly doubtful that the importance of this evidence has been recognized and acted on inside or outside the TSCA program."

Critics have more broadly questioned why the 8(e) reports are seemingly not a bigger focus for EPA. PEER indicated frustration with the agency and argued that it has prioritized other projects. Specifically, EPA has committed to posting real-time information for industry members regarding the chemical approval process for their products, even as sharing the 8(e) reports has fallen by the wayside.

“It is incredible that EPA has funds to post real-time data about the regulatory status of new chemicals for industry’s convenience but does not have funds to alert workers and consumers about substantial health and environmental hazards of these same chemicals,” said Bennett.

Sussman said that he was unaware of what resource requirements might be involved for publicly sharing the reports. But he emphasized the need for the Biden administration to prioritize keeping people safe and aware.

"I think what’s really at issue are the priorities of EPA leadership," he said. "And I can’t fathom why this would not be a high priority in light of its implications for public health protection."

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