EPA wants to ban dry cleaning chemical, set to review 9 other widely-used substances

EPA wants to ban dry cleaning chemical, set to review 9 other widely-used substances
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suggested blocking a substance commonly used for dry cleaning due to its health risks. It is the first of 10 chemicals used in processes such as food production and construction that the agency may prohibit.

EPA is proposing to ban "certain uses of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) due to health risks when used as a degreaser and a spot removal agent in dry cleaning." Trichloroethylene is a known carcinogen and one of 10 chemicals the agency has said it will review for human and environmental safety to comply with a federal chemical-reform law passed earlier this year. 

“For the first time in a generation, we are able to restrict chemicals already in commerce that pose risks to public health and the environment,” Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a statement. “Once finalized, today's action will help protect consumers and workers from cancer and other serious health risks when they are exposed to aerosol degreasing, and when dry cleaners use spotting agents.”

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in June. The law requires the EPA to review existing chemicals for toxicity and to assess whether they "present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment," a mandate the agency was not previously afforded unless it had strong proof that a risk existed.

The bipartisan bill is a reform of the chemical safety law known as the Toxic Substances Control Act, adopted in 1976. That bill has been criticized for relying on a cost-benefit safety standard that effectively allowed the ongoing use of cancer-causing substances like asbestos. 

"Only if EPA could muster the information to make a very strong case for regulating those chemicals, could they be touched," Richard Denison, atop scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Scientific American of the pre-reform law. "But under the old law, there was no mandate for EPA to review those chemicals—that’s part of why this reform was so important."

Without strong independent evidence that a chemical posed a risk, the EPA could not require additional testing and had to rely on data supplied by the company responsible for a chemical. Thus, the EPA has thoroughly reviewed very few of the tens of thousands of chemicals used in the US and has restricted only a handful of new substances that have arrived on the market since the 1970s.

"The burden was on the EPA," Denison added. "And the agency was forced to let chemicals on the market in the absence of information." The reform law will offer the EPA new authority to test new and existing chemicals without considering the cost of regulating a substance.

Asbestos, best known for its use in building construction products, is one of the 10 initial chemicals or substances up for review by the EPA over the next three years. While asbestos is a known carcinogen to humans and is highly toxic, it is banned in only a few uses, including in corrugated and commercial paper. Its use in a variety of products related to building construction and automobile parts remain legal, though these uses have reduced significantly in recent decades.

The other eight chemicals listed by th EPA — many of which are probable human carcinogens and all of which are toxic in one way or another — are found in a variety of consumer products and are commonly released into groundwater, soil, ambient air, and sources of drinking water. They include tetrachloroethylene, another dry-cleaning agent; 1,4-dioxane, which is used in shampoos and bubble baths; 1-bromopropane, a commercial and industrial solvent; carbon tetrachloride, a chemical with industrial uses after being banned as a pesticide and cleaning fluid; cyclic aliphatic bromide cluster, a flame retardant; methylene chloride, a paint remover; N-methylpyrrolidone, a cleaning agent; and pigment violet 29, a dye used in plastics.

These substances were chosen by the EPA out of a list of 90 chemicals selected for their potential to be hazardous to humans, common use, and regularly release into the environment. The EPA has three years to assess each chemical on the list. If the agency determines an undefined "unreasonable risk to humans and the environment," it must "mitigate that risk within two years," the agency said

The EPA's further assessment of additional chemicals will be required by the terms of the reform law, demanding that the agency have at least 20 new or existing substances undergoing review at any given time by the end of 2019.

The reform law passed in both houses of Congress by wide margins and had industry support, including from the American Chemistry Council. Yet some critics of the reform law worry the update could undercut efforts by states such as California and Vermont that seek heightened restrictions on chemicals. Furthermore, the law's implementation in the coming years will not move fast enough for some reform advocates.

"The timetables the new law puts in place mean that EPA action will be disappointingly slow when it comes to evaluating the safety of thousands of chemicals now in commercial use,"said Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Maine, which supports states' rights in taking action against hazardous chemicals if the federal government will not. 

"It is important to note that states still can restrict chemical uses that EPA can't touch or won't address soon," Belliveau added in a June news release. "States must continue to act."