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Chemical Regulation

US EPA finds little risk in latest chemical assessments

Agency ignores past contamination, focuses on narrow set of uses

by Britt E. Erickson
June 28, 2019

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A group of cyclic aliphatic bromide flame retardants does not pose “an unreasonable risk of injury to the environment” or to people, the US Environmental Protection Agency concludes in a draft risk evaluation released June 28. The substances, found in insulated construction materials and automobile replacement parts, include hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and similar chemicals that the EPA claims are no longer manufactured or imported in the US. In a separate evaluation for the industrial solvent 1,4-dioxane, the EPA finds the potential for unreasonable risks to workers in certain situations. However, the agency will likely defer to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to regulate such risks, just as it is doing with new chemicals entering the market that pose risks to workers.

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The EPA did not identify any consumer uses of 1,4-dioxane, even though the chemical is an impurity in ethoxylated compounds found in some detergents and shampoos. “Such activities will be considered in the scope of the risk evaluation for ethoxylated chemicals,” the EPA says.

1,4-dioxane also contaminates drinking water from public utilities in 27 US states, serving more than 7 million people, according to a 2017 report by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group. The EPA considers 1,4-dioxane “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

The two evaluations are part of the first group of 10 that the EPA is conducting to determine the potential risks of chemicals to human health and the environment under the 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The two draft assessments are the second and third of the 10 to be released for public comment by the EPA. The agency must finalize all 10 by the end of the year.

In the first evaluation, which was released in November, the agency found no unreasonable risks associated with use of Pigment Violet 29, a colorant used in inks, paints, coatings, and plastics. A panel of experts and several environmental groups have criticized that assessment for making the determination with insufficient data.

A group of Democrats in the Senate is also raising concerns that the EPA’s chemicals program is ignoring its responsibility to protect workers and leaving it up to other agencies or offices within the EPA to regulate chemical exposures in air, water, or food. The EPA is required to protect vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women, the elderly, and industrial workers, under the amended TSCA.

In a June 20 letter to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, those senators claim that the EPA’s implementation of TSCA has “deviated dramatically from Congress’ intent and the new law’s requirements.”

The latest two draft assessments, like the one for Pigment Violet 29, show a pattern of finding no risks associated with a narrowly defined set of a chemical’s uses. Those uses do not include contamination from past uses.

The EPA is accepting comments on the two draft assessments for 60 days. A group of outside experts will review the documents at a July 29–Aug. 2 meeting.

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