Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency can accomplish what their counterparts at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration largely have not: They can limit worker exposure to a host of hazardous chemicals.
But even with that newfound legal authority, the EPA is hampered by a lack of credible data on which to act.
In fact, most worker exposure standards haven’t been updated by OSHA since the 1970s, which led former director David Michaels to say those limits “are outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health.”
“That’s a little frustrating,” Chris Trahan Cain, director of health and safety at North America’s Building Trades Unions, told Bloomberg Environment. “We should know what jobs expose workers to what chemicals, but we simply don’t.”
Under the recently amended Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the EPA is required to address chemical impacts on workers. They are among the groups of people the amended law designates as potentially susceptible or more highly exposed subpopulations. The law also includes infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly in that group.
In documents to explain EPA risk reviews of 10 chemicals, the agency said workers “may experience greater exposures than the general population.”
The EPA now has up to three years to complete the TSCA risk evaluations, a change from the old law, which didn’t require the agency to assess chemicals already in use.
While the EPA has the authority to protect workers from hazardous chemicals, environmental and labor advocates said they are worried that Administrator Scott Pruitt may not aggressively implement the new law.
“It’s not clear that the Pruitt-Trump administration has any interest in protecting workers, even though workers were a large part of them being in office,” Eve Gartner, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, told Bloomberg Environment.
EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story.
Under the new TSCA law, Gartner said, the “EPA has much more authority to protect workers than OSHA does.”
The TSCA implementation process is being overseen by Nancy Beck, the deputy assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, and a former official with the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade group.
Jennifer McPartland, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said at a recent International Society of Exposure Science conference the agency has unlawfully excluded from planned analyses certain sources of exposure. The Environmental Defense Fund is suing the EPA over its final risk evaluation and two other TSCA rules for these alleged deficiencies.
McPartland said the EPA proposed to exclude from consideration the presence of asbestos in existing buildings and its associated disposal from the agency’s analysis. Asbestos fibers have been broadly used in historic construction practices with wide worker exposures in the building and demolition industries.
For the solvent 1,4-dioxane—primarily a byproduct generated during the production of other chemicals—EPA proposed to exclude the chemical’s presence in products as an impurity, she said.
In addition, even though the EPA now has a deadline to finish risk evaluations, the agency is reluctant to use the new authorities TSCA gave it to require companies to generate exposure information, McPartland alleged.
The original TSCA statute made it too difficult for the EPA to obtain information it needed to understand whether chemicals posed a health or environmental risk, she said. But when Congress amended TSCA, it specifically gave the EPA greater authority to collect existing chemical hazard and exposure data for workers and other subgroups or to require companies to generate the data.
“The EPA should use these authorities,” McPartland said.
While the EPA hasn’t traditionally examined occupational exposures to chemicals, the agency should be able to adjust, Adam Finkel, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and former director of OSHA’s health standards programs, told Bloomberg Environment.
“It’s not rocket science,” Finkel said.
Before the EPA can restrict a chemical or require workplace warnings about it, the agency has to find that the chemical poses an unreasonable risk.
As required by TSCA, the EPA picked 10 chemicals—asbestos, pigment violet 29, seven solvents and a cluster of flame retardants—and is now working to explore their exposures and risks. The chemicals have a variety of uses including in paint strippers, furniture, building materials, and to make other substances.
If a chemical poses an unreasonable risk using the best available science, TSCA says the EPA can require labeling or hazard communication, restrict the chemical’s use or even ban it.
But if the EPA wants to find out more about worker exposures, it has few places to look.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conducted only one National Occupational Exposure Survey—a comprehensive inventory of chemical exposures at U.S. workplaces—from 1981 to 1983. The project was never repeated and it is still used as a data source even though workplaces have changed significantly since.
OSHA also has surveillance information—saved over years of workplace inspections—to draw on, Finkel said. Most OSHA permissible exposure limits for chemicals in the workplace are outdated, and the agency has proposed only four such limits in the past 20 years for chloride, chromium, silica, and beryllium.
And while companies may have more detailed information, Finkel said, it may be protected by proprietary agreements or contain confidential business information.
The challenge of identifying worker exposures is illustrated by three of those first 10 chemicals to be studied—paint strippers methylene chloride and n-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP), and the dry cleaning solvent trichloroethylene (TCE)—for which the EPA already has risk assessments detailing worker exposures.
Under the Obama administration, the EPA issued two proposed rules—in December 2016 and a month later—to restrict uses of TCE. It also proposed a rule in January that would prohibit the use of methylene chloride and ban or restrict NMP in paint removal products. The Trump administration has delayed all three proposed rules with no planned finalization date.
In the methylene chloride assessment, the EPA determined at least 230,000 workers were exposed to paint strippers containing the chemical, while at least 330,000 workers were exposed to TCE through degreasing and dry cleaning operations.
“That’s pretty meaningful,” Gartner of Earthjustice said, “especially because EPA found the risks were pretty serious.”
The risk rationales justifying these actions show the agency quantified how many workers were exposed, Gartner added.
The agency also completed risk reviews for TCE and methylene chloride in 2014, and NMP in 2015. The EPA concluded that TCE and methylene chloride were probable human carcinogens, while NMP was likely to cause reproductive toxicity.
Dennis Shireman, vice president of research and development at W.M. Barr & Company Inc., said at a recent EPA workshop that the company has used methylene chloride to manufacture nonflammable paint remover for 70 years, but has never seen a serious worker injury associated with the chemical.
Shireman told the EPA that the company—the largest U.S. retail supplier of paint removals, solvents and thinners—uses engineering controls at its manufacturing plant “to completely comply with OSHA standards.”
Other companies that make methylene chloride-containing strippers—and belong to the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance—have provided exposure information to the EPA, Faye Graul, the alliance’s executive director, told Bloomberg Environment.
Graul declined to elaborate on what the companies found, but in comments the association filed with the agency earlier this year, the group wrote worker exposure risks from methylene chloride appeared “manageable with the appropriate worker protection strategies that already exist,” such as as using respirators.
Chemical manufacturers and other parties interested in chemical safety want to work with the EPA to provide worker exposure information, according to Rosemary Zaleski, head of the exposure sciences section at ExxonMobil Biomedical Sciences. A lot of exposure information exists, but it can be difficult and time consuming to extract, she said.
The agency doesn’t need to do all the work, because if asked, companies and other interested parties will help gather this information, Zaleski said.
For example, some companies are studying what type of gloves are most effective at controlling NMP exposure, according to Kathleen Roberts, managing director of the NMP Producers Group, whose members include Ashland Inc., BASF Corp and Lyondell Chemical Co.
Companies may be motivated to help the EPA with the reviews to ensure the agency doesn’t “identify risks that may not exist, and then could be implementing use restrictions that aren’t necessary,” Roberts told Bloomberg Environment.
The EPA’s research office continues to make strides towards developing exposure estimates for thousands of chemicals. The agency is developing high-throughput computerized estimates for people that experience different types of exposure via consumer products and in occupational settings, an EPA spokeswoman told Bloomberg Environment.
These exposure estimates will be available to the agency’s chemicals office to account for worker and other vulnerable groups in making regulatory decisions under the amended TSCA should EPA leadership opt to protect those groups, the labor and environmental advocates say.
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