The EPA has all but stopped posting online data about new types of problems commercial chemicals may cause, frustrating public interest groups and businesses that use the information to make health and safety decisions.
The Environmental Protection Agency says it went from posting substantial risk notices for hundreds of chemicals every year in its ChemView database—to posting just two notices since 2019—because the employee who updated the website retired, and because it’s not legally required to keep the website up to date.
The only way to view the data immediately is to visit the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. That leaves the public “completely blind to critical health and safety information for hundreds of chemicals,” said Jennifer McPartland, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Businesses might need the information to decide whether to purchase a chemical, design an alternative, or improve its health and safety measures, said Richard E. Engler, director of chemistry for Bergeson and Campbell PC.
The database contains documents and data that can’t be found elsewhere, such as companies’ unpublished, internal health and toxicology studies that were discovered through litigation and court orders, said Robert A. Bilott, a partner with Taft Stettinius and Hollister LLP in Cincinnati.
“It is critically important that the public be able to easily and freely access and review the materials in these agency dockets,” said Bilott, whose work as an environmental litigator was featured in the film “Dark Waters.”
The EPA said it plans to resume posting risk information in ChemView soon—if resources allow.
The changes to the ChemView database and EPA website were first reported by The Intercept.
The EPA employee who posted the substantial risk notices retired three years ago and wasn’t replaced. And overstretched chemical office staff couldn’t add that task to their other required Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) duties, the agency said.
“The TSCA program has been and remains incredibly underfunded,” the agency said by email. “These shortfalls have implications that matter to all stakeholders, not just industry.”
Bilott, starting in 2001, provided the EPA thousands of pages of health and safety data he obtained about perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) through a lawsuit against the E.I du Pont de Nemours and Co.
That information expanded the EPA’s existing knowledge and helped make PFOA—which was virtually unknown to the public—one of the two most recognized and concerning of a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), collectively referred to as “forever chemicals.”
The EPA receives substantial chemical risk information in two ways. Chemical producers, importers, companies that mix chemicals into products like paint, and distributors must file within 30 days information that suggests a chemical they work with may harm people or the environment in a previously unrecognized way.
Attorneys, researchers, and other parties also can submit information to the agency voluntarily.
The amount of information in any single submission varies from a single page to hundreds, the EPA said. Although the data isn’t being posted online, the EPA is receiving and using it, the agency said.
Earlier this year, the EPA reinstated contractor funding to screen the submissions so serious health and safety risks are flagged for further review, it said.
The agency also said it’s requested additional funding for the TSCA program and is automating the time-consuming, manual process of extracting public data from documents that also contain confidential business information.
Meanwhile, researchers, advocacy organizations, governments, and affected community members could be using that information to understand chemical risks and decide what to do on policy and other matters, McPartland said.
Right to Know
Significant risk notices might show that certain chemicals lack data, and the public could petition the EPA to get that information—but only if people have access to the risk submissions, said Eve Gartner, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Toxic Exposure and Health Program.
The agency’s decision to stop releasing the risk information is noteworthy, because the 2016 TSCA amendments require extensive public input as the agency prioritizes, evaluates, and manages chemicals, Gartner said.
The amended law so emphasized the right-to-know about chemicals that could affect public health that in 2018 the agency created a new document-tagging system to help the public track different risk information about the same chemical.
When trade secret needs justify a company keeping a chemical’s identity secret, the EPA tags health and safety information about that chemical with a “unique identifier.”
That code is to let the public know when notices from different companies or about different health problems apply to the same chemical. Previously the public had no way to know when multiple documents referred to the same confidential chemical.
The public needs such information, because the substantial risk notices the agency isn’t posting can offer the only insight into new health and environmental problems a chemical is causing, said Melanie Benesh, an Environmental Working Group attorney.