WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is shifting course under the Trump administration on how it assesses new chemicals for health and environmental hazards, streamlining a safety review process that industry leaders say is too slow and cumbersome.
But some former EPA officials, as well as experts and advocates, say the agency is skipping vital steps that protect the public from hazardous chemicals that consumers have never used before, undermining new laws and regulations that Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2016.
According to these critics, that could mean that manufacturers might get approval to introduce a new chemical for one purpose, without getting a thorough, timely review of the chemical’s safety if it is later used for a different purpose. Asbestos, for example, was commonly used in building insulation before the EPA cracked down on its use, but the carcinogenic chemical is still found in brake pads for automobiles — posing hazards for garage mechanics — and is widely used to manufacture chlorine.
In recent months, the EPA has quietly overhauled its process for determining whether new chemicals — used in everything from household cleaners and industrial manufacturing to children’s toys — pose a serious risk to human health or the environment. Among other changes, the agency will no longer require that manufacturers who want to produce new, potentially hazardous chemicals sign legal agreements that restrict their use under certain conditions.
Such agreements, known as consent orders, will still be required if the EPA believes that the manufacturer’s intended use for a new chemical poses a risk to the public health and the environment. But the agency won’t require consent orders when it believes there are risks associated with “reasonably foreseen” uses of the new chemical — ones that go beyond what a manufacturer says it’s intending to do, but which the agency believes are reasonable to anticipate in the future.
Instead the EPA will rely on a broader measure, known as significant new-use rules, to regulate chemicals that are likely to pose a risk if they're used for a different purpose. The agency typically has to issue these rules whenever they want to restrict the broad use of potentially hazardous chemicals, since consent orders apply only to a single manufacturer.