Chemical Industry and Republican Lawmakers Succeed in Stalling EPA Chemical Regulation Process

Monday, January 26, 2015
Kenneth Olden

The chemical industry and their friends in Washington—mostly Republican congressmen—have stopped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating some dangerous chemicals.


When Barack Obama became president, he vowed to step up the analysis of chemicals by EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) to determine which should be restricted or banned because of toxicity. The George W. Bush administration had evaluated only about five chemicals a year. Lisa Jackson, Obama’s first EPA administrator, said the target should be 50 a year. Instead, the EPA has completed only 41 evaluations since Obama took office in 2009, with only one being done in 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity.


Republican legislators have done their best to gum up the works on behalf of the chemical industry. Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) blocked an EPA appointment until the agency agreed to submit an evaluation of formaldehyde—found in embalming fluid among other applications—for a second opinion. The National Academy of Sciences panel that looked at the report didn’t quarrel with its evaluation of formaldehyde as a toxic carcinogenic substance. Instead, it criticized the process used to create the report. That created enough daylight for the chemical industry to cry foul. 


“The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments,” according to a statement from the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry group. Oddly, the National Academy issued its own report on formaldehyde last year. It agreed with the EPA that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen linked to leukemia. Yet, the EPA’s assessment is still in limbo.


Friendly members of Congress also held up an EPA report on the effects of arsenic. The agency was prepared to ban its use in a weed killer, but thanks to the chemical industry’s pals on Capitol Hill, the herbicide remains on the market.


William Ruckelshaus, who ran the EPA under presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, blasted the practice of ordering the National Academy of Sciences to give second opinions on IRIS’ assessments.


“Anytime that a scientific group or the EPA or any other agencies that has regulatory authorities over these kinds of chemicals finds something wrong it ought to be immediately published,” Ruckelshaus told the Center for Public Integrity. “To the extent that that’s delayed or stalled in some way it’s really unconscionable—particularly if it’s done on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemical and they have economic benefit associated with it.”


Kenneth Olden, who leads the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment which supervises IRIS, has collaborated with the chemical industry in the past and unlike most EPA officials, gets a warm welcome from Congressional Republicans and the chemical industry. Michael Walls, a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, testified, “You can count me among the fans of Ken Olden.” Olden has urged cooperation with industry, instituting public comment sessions attended primarily by representatives of chemical companies. Since Olden assumed his responsibilities 2½ years ago, the EPA has published only four chemical assessments.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Obama’s EPA Breaks Pledge to Divorce Politics From Science on Toxic Chemicals (by David Heath, Center for Public Integrity)

EPA’s Trichloroethylene (TCE) Risk Assessment: Will It Succeed in Protecting Workers? (by Elizabeth Grossman, Science Blogs)

An Agencywide Strategy May Help EPA Address Unmet Needs for Integrated Risk Information System Assessments (Government Accountability Office)

EPA Allowed Chemical Industry to Control Panel Assessing Cancer Danger in Drinking Water (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

Formaldehyde Added to List of Cancer-Causing Chemicals (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

EPA Toxic Substance Database is 55 Years Behind Schedule (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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