EPA Withdraws Blocked Draft Chemical Rules, Access to Health Risk Information to Suffer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Sept. 6 that it is withdrawing two proposed rules regarding regulation of chemicals. The first rule would have allowed EPA to require chemical manufacturers to provide more information, both to the agency and the public, on several chemicals of particularly high health concern. The second rule would have clarified EPA’s policy regarding the ability of chemical manufacturers to claim certain chemical information as "confidential business information" (CBI).

The rules had been submitted to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) by the EPA in May 2010 and December 2011 respectively, but had never been released by OIRA to allow EPA to proceed with the regulatory development process. Under Executive Order 12866, OIRA is required to complete its reviews of proposed rules in 90 days, with a possible additional 30-day extension if necessary. Given the lack of OIRA action on both proposed rules, a frustrated EPA has now withdrawn them from consideration.

Under authority provided by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), EPA had proposed adding bisphenol A (BPA), eight phthalates, and a category of fire retardants known as polybrominated dipheynl ethers (PBDEs) to the “chemicals of concern” list. The substances have been linked to a wide variety of health risks, particularly in children. BPA and PBDE exposure during pregnancy and childhood have been linked to a variety of behavioral problems in children. Prenatal phthalate exposure has been linked to reproductive system damage in boys. TSCA gives the agency the authority to compile and keep current a tally of chemicals that "may present an unreasonable risk to human health and/or the environment." Adding a substance to the list shifts the burden of proving that new uses of those substances are safe from the EPA to the manufacturer. Chemical companies had strenuously objected to the proposed listings and held two meetings with OIRA staff to voice their objections.

The CBI designation restricts the ability of the public and workers to have access to important information needed to understand the potential health risks posed by hazardous chemicals. Since this policy change would have provided public access to health study information supplied by manufacturers on numerous chemicals now in commerce, the rule would have had major public health benefits.

Despite the Obama administration’s stated objective of increasing federal government transparency, and the EPA’s stated intent to improve public access to chemical risk information, the lack of OIRA action on EPA’s proposed rule to limit the use of confidential business information to improve public and worker access to critical health and safety information on chemicals undercuts the administration’s commitment to improving transparency in government.

There was, however, one bright spot in recent days. EPA has continued to undertake efforts to improve public access to the non-CBI chemical health information, announcing on Sept. 9 the availability of a new web-based database of hazard information for over 1,000 existing chemicals, called ChemView.

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