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EPA’s Method to Identify Chemical Concerns Rejected by Advisers

March 17, 2022, 8:21 PM

The EPA has more work to do in developing its strategy to identify communities with higher-than-average exposures to potentially harmful hazardous chemicals, science advisers said this week.

The advisers, whose three-day meeting ended Thursday, recommended dozens of ways that the Environmental Protection Agency could examine how people breathe in, drink, touch, or eat industrial chemicals, as well as sources for such data.

But implementing all those recommendations increases the likelihood of delays in regulations to protect people, which the EPA is required to issue for seven solvents used for decades by industries ranging from dry cleaners to semiconductor manufacturers.

The agency’s Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals critiqued a proposed draft screening methodology to quickly decide whether chemicals released by factories or other facilities into the air or water would harm “fenceline communities,” or people living near the factories or facilities. If so, the agency would adjust planned regulations to protect those communities.

“I don’t think it’s usable, because it leaves out too many pathways,” or ways people could be exposed, said committee member John Kissel, a former environmental health professor who’s retired from the University of Washington, Seattle.

The draft screening method looks only at amounts of a chemical released into outdoor air by a single site and the amounts of the chemical they might touch, by swimming or playing in contaminated water.

Legal Challenges

“I’d caution against accepting a tool that’s not encompassing, because there will be legal challenges to that,” said panel member Christine Chaisson, a risk analyst who directs the Lifeline Group, a not-for-profit consulting organization.

The EPA plans to use an initial version of the strategy to develop a regulation now or get more data about a fenceline communities decision for seven solvents: 1-bromopropane; carbon tetrachloride; 1,4-dioxane; methylene chloride; n-methylpyrrolidone; perchloroethylene; and trichlorethylene. The agency would use improved versions of its strategy to evaluate risks of other chemicals it must examine.

But trade associations, community activists, and environmental health groups said during Tuesday’s public comments that the EPA’s method violates the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act amendments, because the method doesn’t use the “best available science” mandated by that law. The TSCA statute didn’t define that phrase, nor has any court ruled on that specific issue.

The agency’s science advisers didn’t comment on whether EPA’s effort meets the law’s requirements, but the scientific concerns they voiced echoed many points both industry and non-profit groups raised.

Simple, All-Inclusive Solution

The EPA must consider exposures from contaminated groundwater, gaseous releases of chemicals from groundwater into homes and other buildings, fish and game consumption among tribal and other populations that rely on them, biosolids, spills, landfills, and other sources, said Holly Davies. She summarized points made by many—but not all—the other advisers and recommendations that were consistent with suggestions from community members and environmental health groups.

The agency’s method also must recognize that people might live near and work at an industrial site releasing the chemicals, said Davies, a senior toxicologist at the Washington State Department of Health.

The EPA should expand the data sources it plans to use, committee members said, echoing comments Dow Chemical Co., American Chemistry Council, American Petroleum, and other industry groups had raised.

The agency’s air, water, land, and regional offices may have useful information as would states, local governments, communities, and commercial facilities, many committee members said.

But panel member Sheri Blystone questioned the breadth of issues and data the committee was directing the agency to analyze. “The EPA has limited resources, yet it is being asked to be experts in everything related to the commercial production of chemicals in the U.S,” said Blystone, regulatory affairs and product safety director for the SNF Holding Co., which produces chemicals.

The EPA’s chemicals office has wanted to hire additional personnel and contractors, but a months-long stopgap government funding measure and other factors delayed those efforts.

The challenge the committee put before EPA is essentially to “keep it comprehensive and keep it simple,” said panel member Li Li, who teaches environmental health at the University of Nevada, Reno.

`Real Bad Actors’

Panel member Wendy Heiger-Bernays, an environmental toxicologist teaching at Boston University, began to question whether the agency could implement the committee’s copious suggestions while also acting soon to protect communities from chemicals that are “real bad actors.”

The EPA “should not delay using available data to protect the public, especially disproportionately exposed communities,” said committee member Monica Unseld, executive director of Until Justice Data Partners Inc.

“At this stage of the game, at this moment in time, in this administration” risks facing historically ignored populations may finally be recognized, Chaisson said. “It hasn’t happened before, and it may not happen again.”

The panel’s written recommendations, due in a few months, should distinguish near-term actions EPA can take to let it issue needed regulations from longer-term improvements to its strategy, said Heiger-Bernays.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at