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Unregulated Chemicals Kill Millions Every Year

Unregulated Chemicals Kill Millions Every Year
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…and the EPA does nothing. Faced with such needless death, why is this agency doing nothing to protect us? Action Alert!

An analysis by the World Health Institute found that, in 2019, chemical exposures resulted in the death of 2 million people globally and the loss of 53 million disability adjusted life-years. This is likely vastly underestimating the problem, since the science is only just now emerging on the dangers of being exposed to even low levels of endocrine disruptors and chemicals used in plastics. Why isn’t the EPA protecting Americans from these dangerous chemicals? Corruption and regulatory capture at the EPA show that this agency is entirely unequipped to protect Americans from the thousands of dangerous chemicals that are making us sick.

First, there’s the revolving door between EPA and the industries it regulates. Agency officials often move to lucrative careers at chemical companies, a fact they understand while working as regulators of that industry. Conversely, industry executives are often appointed to important positions within the EPA. Open Secrets has identified 208 people at the EPA who have been through the revolving door. How can the public be adequately protected when agency officials are promised lucrative jobs in exchange for doing industry’s bidding while in government, or when oil, gas, and coal executives are given leadership positions within the agency?

This kind of corruption helps keep dangerous chemicals like glyphosate on the market. We reported on court documents showing that a top EPA official, Jess Rowland, promised Monsanto he would quash an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services Department (HHS) to conduct its own review of glyphosate. He was successful—the HHS review never happened. A letter from a former EPA employee dying of cancer accused Rowland of having intimidated staff, compelling them to change reports to make them favorable to Monsanto. It will be interesting to see where Rowland ends up after his tenure at the EPA.

The rules of the game are also rigged in industry’s favor because industry gets to write the rules. When the law governing chemical regulation was updated in 2016, it was with the support of the chemical industry. When draft versions of the bill that eventually became law were circulated, the authoring information in the Word document indicated that it originated with the American Chemistry Council, the trade group and lobbyist for the chemical industry. The sponsor of the bill, former Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and the other sixteen cosponsors of that legislation received an average of 70 percent more in campaign contributions from chemical companies than other senators.

The update to toxic chemicals policy in 2016 was touted as a reform to a broken system, but in reality it accomplished very little—likely due to the chemical industry’s influence noted above. The 2016 “reform” retained the original safety standard, allowing the EPA to take action against a chemical if it is found to present an “unreasonable risk of injury to health,” a term which is not defined.

It is a slight improvement over the original act passed in 1976, which in practice forced the EPA to undergo a cost-benefit analysis before it banned a chemical: is the likelihood of injury from the chemical greater than the economic burden to industry of restricting the chemical’s use? This standard was designed to limit action against harmful chemicals: the burden of proof was so difficult that the EPA couldn’t ban asbestos, a known carcinogen that kills 15,000 people a year.

The 2016 law did away with the cost-benefit analysis in theory, but experts point out that leaving the term “unreasonable risk” undefined will inevitably lead to litigation, where courts would be likely to interpret Congress’ intent, as it has been previously construed in case law, as still requiring a cost-benefit analysis. So, the reform did almost nothing to change the standards by which the EPA regulates chemicals.

The 2016 “reform” did change the law on what state actions could be preempted by EPA actions on chemicals. It is a complex issue, but simply put: the new law bars states from regulating or restricting a chemical if the EPA has found that it does not pose an unreasonable risk to human health. Like the GMO labeling law, the chemical reform legislation took power away from the states to take action on chemicals when the EPA failed to do so.

The 2016 reform requires the EPA to test unregulated chemicals currently on the market and the thousands of new chemicals that come to the market every year…at the rate of 20 chemicals at a time, each with a seven-year deadline. Industry then has five years to comply after a new rule is made. Of the 84,000 chemicals currently on the market, the EPA has banned or restricted only a handful of chemicals since 1976. This would be comical if it wasn’t putting millions of lives at risk.

All of this shows that we cannot rely on the federal government to protect us, and we must take steps to educate ourselves to avoid, as best we can, the dangerous chemicals that abound in modern society.

It is our exposure to chemical toxins and pollutants, in addition to poor diet and foods grown in nutrient depleted soil, that has helped create an epidemic of chronic disease. Our healthcare system is overburdened trying to address these chronic ailments with pharmaceutical drugs that are dangerous, expensive, and often don’t work. At the same time, our food system relies on dangerous chemicals that degrade human health and prioritizes subsidizing mono crops like corn and wheat with low nutritional value. We need to shift to a regenerative approach to human health as well as agriculture. This means reducing toxic inputs into our soil, water and air, and increasing the availability of nutrient-dense foods. Healthy food can support a regenerative approach to healthcare where diet, proper supplementation, and the avoidance of toxins and pollutants address key sources of our chronic disease epidemic. Until we make this transition, we will continue to pay more and more for healthcare that doesn’t optimize our health.

Action Alert! Write to Congress and the EPA, telling them to update chemical to define “unreasonable risk” to human health in the law. Please send your message immediately.

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