Read the full article by Sharon Lerner (The Intercept)
“The Environmental Protection Agency has withheld information from the public since January 2019 about the dangers posed by more than 1,200 chemicals. By law, companies must give the EPA any evidence they possess that a chemical presents ‘a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.’ Until recently, the agency had been making these reports — known as 8(e) reports, for the section of the Toxic Substances Control Act that requires them — available to the public. In 2017, for instance, the EPA posted 481 substantial risk reports from industry on ChemView, a searchable public database of chemical information maintained by the agency. And in 2018, it added another 569 8(e) reports to the site. But since 2019, the EPA has only posted one of the reports to its public website.
During this time, chemical companies have continued to submit the critical studies to the agency, according to two EPA staff members with knowledge of the matter. Since January 2019, the EPA has received at least 1,240 reports documenting the risk of chemicals’ serious harms, including eye corrosion, damage to the brain and nervous system, chronic toxicity to honeybees, and cancer in both people and animals. PFAS compounds are among the chemical subjects of these notifications.
An EPA spokesperson acknowledged the problem in an emailed response to questions from The Intercept. ‘Due to overarching (staff and contractor) resource limitations, the agency was not able to continue the regular publication of 8(e) submissions in ChemView, a very manual process, after 1/1/2019.’ The statement went on to note: ‘The TSCA program is underfunded. The previous Administration never asked Congress for the necessary resources to reflect the agency’s new responsibilities under amended TSCA. These shortfalls have implications that matter to all stakeholders, not just industry.’ Despite the funding challenges, the EPA pledged to try to rectify the situation.
The Black Hole
Not only has the agency kept all but one of these reports from the public, but it has also made them difficult for EPA staff to access, according to the two agency scientists, who are choosing to remain anonymous because of concerns about possible retribution. The substantial risk reports have not been uploaded to the databases used most often by risk assessors searching for information about chemicals, according one of the EPA scientists, who has worked closely with the 8(e) statements. They have been entered only into an internal database that is difficult to access and search. As a result, little — and perhaps none — of the information about these serious risks to health and the environment has been incorporated into the chemical assessments completed during this period.
‘The fact that these studies aren’t being included means there’s a very good chance there are some chemical assessments where we should have reached different conclusions,’ said another EPA staff member who is familiar with the chemical assessment process. The information comes in the wake of evidence of dysfunction and corruption in the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics that five whistleblowers have provided to The Intercept, the EPA inspector general, and members of Congress since July. All five remain employed by the agency and are working with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, an organization that represents whistleblowers.
According to the emailed response from the agency, ‘EPA routinely uses all studies submitted to the agency, including 8e submissions, in TSCA new and existing chemical risk evaluations.’ The statement acknowledged the difficulty of using the internal database, called CIS, on which the reports were loaded. ‘Some aspects of navigating CIS may be cumbersome, especially for assessors with less experience in doing so, and EPA has developed plans and proposals for updates and modernization, but their implementation has been hindered by a lack of resources,’ it said.
The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act clearly intended for the EPA to act on the information sent in by industry. And according to an agency spokesperson, each 8(e) submission is promptly reviewed and evaluated to determine the degree of concern that should be attached to it as well as recommendations for appropriate follow-up actions.
But the two EPA staff members who spoke with The Intercept said that the reports do not trigger an immediate response. ‘I would think most people in the public would assume that when we would get these reports, we give them incredible scrutiny and say, ‘Oh no! What are we going to do about this?’ But basically, they are just going into a black hole,’ said one of the two scientists. ‘We don’t look at them. We don’t evaluate them. And we don’t check to see if they change our understanding of the chemical.’
In its response to The Intercept, the EPA disputed the scientists’ description of the process. ‘This is not a factual representation of how EPA deals with TSCA 8(e) submissions,’ the agency spokesperson wrote, going on to say that agency staff do review the submissions to determine the ‘degree of concern.’
For decades, companies routinely claimed that much of the information in an 8(e) report could be declared confidential business information, allowing them to strike the name of the chemical from the report and making it impossible to address the harm. In 2010, the Obama administration changed course, announcing that it would begin reviewing the confidentiality claims and, if they were not legitimate, publicly post the reports along with compounds’ names.
The chemical industry pushed back against the policy, arguing that forcing companies to reveal the names of their compounds was a violation of their intellectual property rights. And close observers of the industry believe that pressure from companies that held this view was likely what led the Trump EPA to decide to stop publicly posting the reports.”…