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26 June 2019

United States: Trump jeopardises the regulation of chemical risks

the exterior of the us environmental protection agency building in washington

Since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, the US Environmental Protection Agency has shifted its policy focus towards reducing the “regulatory burden” on the chemical industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a key role to play in the US, being the federal agency responsible for regulating and controlling chemical risks. Set up in 1970, it employs some 15 000 people. It has its own research centres, enacts rules and performs control functions (mainly via a system of inspections and sanctions). With respect to chemical risks, the EPA plays a crucial role in implementing the federal legislation on chemical substances reformed in 2016 as the result of a parliamentary compromise.

Since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, the US Environmental Protection Agency has shifted its policy focus towards reducing the "regulatory burden" on the chemical industry. Public health and occupational health have been sacrificed for the benefit of business interests.

According to Richard Denison,, a specialist in chemical risks who works for the NGO Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), this shift can be seen in several areas.

Current EPA policy is chipping away at the hierarchy of prevention measures. Instead of eliminating the risks at source by banning the most hazardous substances when safer alternatives exist, the EPA now considers that a ban is just one of many possible measures and that, in certain cases, simple mitigation of the risks could suffice. This is evidenced by the withdrawal of the planned ban of a solvent used as a paint stripper: dichloromethane (DCM or methylene chloride). Tens of thousands of workers are exposed to it, despite it being highly toxic and the cause of many deaths each year, Use of DCM in most of its applications –  including paint stripping –  has been banned in the European Union since 2010.

Alexandra Dunn, the new EPA director responsible for chemical risks, has tried to trivialise the risks, stating that the ban was just one of many possible options and that, for certain substances, it was better to consider managing the risks. She is quoted as saying that “there may be piles of different ways of mitigating or managing risks. These include notifications, process controls, management of production volumes or labelling. Sometimes people believe that the EPA notes down all these substances with the intention of banning them. I don’t think that is going to happen”.

While back in 2015 the EPA was planning to give primary protection pride of place in the measures to be adopted, under Trump’s influence the agency now blindly places its trust in personal protection equipment. Authorisations have been granted for hazardous substances on the basis of the simple fact that safety instructions contain a non-binding recommendation to use personal protection equipment.

The EPA refuses to take the occupational exposure of workers into consideration when analysing problems, stating that a different federal agency is responsible for this. This stance ignores the fact that the exposure levels tolerated by the OSHA are much higher than those for the population in general. This refusal to take account of occupational exposures in the overall system for regulating chemical risks is leading to a further growth in social inequality.

The EPA’s policy shift goes hand in hand with a lack of transparency, with the Agency increasingly reticent to communicate all the data upon which it bases its positions and organises its work.

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Crédit Photo : Chris de Adobe Stock

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