Environmental Protection

26 Groups Support EPA Right-to-Know Policy for Chemical Hazards

Twenty-six health, labor and environmental organizations have filed detailed comments (pdf) voicing support for a change in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policy that denied public access to information the agency receives from the chemical industry, according to a press release from the Environmental Defense Fund and Earthjustice.

“EPA’s move brings us toward an age of greater transparency and helps give people the power to make safer choices about what products to bring into their home,” said Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado. “If a chemical is known or suspected to be causing cancer or other serious diseases, at the very minimum, the public should be able to find out the name of that chemical. Although it’s the law, in the past it wasn’t the practice.”

The groups' filing comes as Congress considers legislation that would overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the 1976 law that EPA, health, labor and environmental groups, and even the chemical industry agree has not adequately protected the public from toxic chemicals. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has declared enhancing chemical safety to be one of her priorities and announced the agency’s new right-to-know policy in late May. At that time, EPA signaled its intent to deny industry claims seeking to withhold the names of chemicals when submitting health and safety data to the agency. EPA announced that it will not only deny future claims, but will review and challenge such claims made in the past.

"One of the few positive provisions of TSCA is that it clearly puts chemical health and safety data off-limits for protection as confidential business information," said Richard A. Denison, Ph.D., senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. "Despite this, chemical companies have as a matter of course claimed the identity of the chemical in question to be confidential even when providing EPA data indicating a chemical presents a substantial risk – yielding the perverse outcome that the public learns only that some unnamed chemical may be dangerous."

One provision of current law requires chemical companies to submit to EPA any studies or data they obtain that indicate a chemical presents a substantial risk to the public or the environment. According to EPA, the identities of more than 40 percent of the hundreds of chemicals covered by reports submitted in fiscal years 2006 through 2009 have been claimed secret.

On the rare occasions in the past when EPA has reviewed such claims, it has uniformly found they do not actually qualify for protection after all. Yet EPA's only recourse is to challenge those claims one by one – a highly resource-intensive activity that has hamstrung EPA officials. EPA officials have noted that they review an average of only 14 of the thousands of secrecy claims made under TSCA annually. EPA's new policy puts companies on notice that they should not make those claims, and that they will be denied except in very rare cases.

In their comments, the groups urged EPA to take several additional steps in implementing the new policy, including

  • EPA should implement a system for tracking and publicly reporting the status of all reviewed and challenged claims and should provide that information on EPA’s website in a timely manner.
  • In reviewing past claims, EPA should prioritize review of claims for chemicals for which available information indicate cause for concern as to hazard or exposure potential.
  • Where EPA determines that a chemical's identity is not entitled to protection in the context of a health and safety study, it should also remove any such protection for that chemical in the context of its listing on the TSCA Inventory.
  • EPA should require the recertification of CBI claims after no more than five years and not allow information to be withheld from the public indefinitely without substantiation.

The groups are AAIDD's Environmental Health Initiative, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, American Nurses Association, Autism Society, BlueGreen Alliance, Breast Cancer Fund, Clean New York, Clean Water Action, Commonweal, Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Health Strategy Center, Environment California, The Green Science Policy Institute, Health Care Without Harm, Healthy Building Network, Kentucky Environmental Foundation,Learning Disabilities Association of America, Natural Resources Defense Council,New Jersey Work Environmental Council, Oregon Toxics Alliance, PODER Science and Environmental Health Network and Women's Voices for the Earth.

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