Why Are Nurses Suing the EPA?

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How is it that our shampoo can contain carcinogens and our floor cleaner reproductive toxicants? For over a decade nurses have been working with a wide range of partners, including other health professionals, environmentalists, and health-affected groups, to up-date the nation’s chemical safety policy. Written in 1976, the Toxic Substance Control Act was an ineffectual safety net for people and the environment from exposures to toxic chemicals in our air, water, food, and products. It did not require companies to do any sort of pre-market testing of their products for toxicity or potential harm.

Worse, it established that any chemicals that were already in the market place (some 80,000 chemicals) were “generally regarded as safe” without any evidence about their safety or harm to confirm this assumption. This was a way in which to “grandfather” a host of toxic chemicals and thus protect them from new requirements for safety testing. Additionally, the burden of proof regarding toxicity was the responsibility of the public and the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than requiring manufacturers to prove that a chemical or product is safe before letting us use the product in our homes, schools, or workplaces. In every instant in which the EPA tried to prove that a chemical was dangerous, the industry prevailed in keeping it on the market. An example of the challenges under the original law, the EPA could not even ban asbestos – a know carcinogen with unquestionable evidence of harm.

New Chemical Law

In 2016, after making significant and debilitating compromises, we (nurses and others) helped to usher in a new chemical law, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Obama that replaced the 1976 law. The biggest and most important compromise of the new federal law is the fact that it pre-empts states from passing chemical safety laws that are more effective than the new federal law once a chemical is under review by the EPA. Historically, we have looked to progressive states to pass legislation on health and safety before federal laws have made their way through Congress and to the President. This exception flies in the face of Republican calls for increasing state’s rights over federal mandates. Instead, we now have states incapacitated from further protecting their citizens from toxic chemicals, even if their citizens overwhelmingly want the added protection.

Another problematic issue with the new chemical safety law is the time line that was created for reviewing potentially, and often known, toxic chemicals. Only 10 new chemicals are required to be reviewed in the first year and then by 2019 twenty chemicals need to be under review at any given time. The Registry for Toxic Effects of Chemicals includes over 150,000 chemicals for which there is some toxicological evidence; over 80,000 chemicals are in the market place. Think about how many years it will take to get through that list at a pace of 10 – 20 chemicals per year. And, more importantly as nurses, consider how many years and decades we may see preventable health effects from toxic chemicals that have not been reviewed because we just haven’t gotten to them yet.

Three Elements We Agreed Upon

As a nurse, whose mantra is “evidence-based practice”, I find it difficult to help individuals and communities navigate the necessary purchasing decisions required to live, work, learn, and play because of the lack of information about so many of the chemicals that make up our everyday products. Because we don’t require complete labeling for the vast majority of products, we can’t even do our own independent literature searches regarding the ingredients. When nurses started working on the revamping of the old chemical law, we had 3 elements that our coalition members agreed upon:

  1. We need basic health and safety information on all chemicals in the marketplace.
  2. We must be able to protect the most vulnerable of our population, including the fetus, infants, and children, from the effects of toxic chemicals.
  3. The EPA must have the power to ban chemicals that create the greatest risk of harm.

Our new chemical safety law, which has a very long name and honors the original Senator who sponsored the bill, is called the Frank R. Lautenburg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century. Once signed into law in 2016, the EPA was mandated to issue guidance documents for how they were going to review the chemicals under the updated regulation. Unfortunately, the EPA is now under a different and admittedly anti-regulatory administration. The new guidelines, issued in June 2017, reflect this bias.  Instead of looking at all possible uses of a chemical in the marketplace and commerce, the new guidelines allow the EPA to pick and choose which uses they will consider when determining if the chemical poses an unreasonable health risk. Consider the case of lead. Lead can be found as a contaminant in air, water, food, toys, and even in lipstick. If they only look at one or two of these sources, the EPA may be missing important exposure sources that could underestimate the health risks and allow a toxic chemical to be used in products that would otherwise be deemed unsafe.

Nurses Join Together

At the issuance of the new guidelines, nurses joined a number of other organizations in suing the EPA for placing the public at an unreasonable health risk. “The new guidelines fly in the face of our attempts to protect the public’s health,” asserts Katie Huffling, Executive Director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. Three separate suits were filed in District Courts around the country. It is anticipated that the judges in the courts will consolidate the cases and there will be one case heard. To follow the court case and other information about chemical safety and chemical policy, you can go to www.saferchemicalshealthyfamilies.org.

To join in free monthly national calls with other nurses who are concerned about chemicals and public health policy, go to the website of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments: https://envirn.org/policy-advocacy/

With so many policy changes occurring – in health care, the environment, and other important areas – it is sometimes difficult to keep up. We welcome you to join our calls and just listen, if you like, to hear from nurses who are engaged in helping to protect human and environmental health. We also, especially, invite you to get involved and join a growing number of nurses who are concerned about potentially toxic chemicals in our everyday lives.

Author:   Barbara Sattler, RN, MPH, DrPH, FAAN, Professor, University of San Francisco School of Nursing and Health Professions (bsattler@usfca.edu) and Board Member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (www.enviRN.org)