by Elizabeth Grossman
Among the big changes the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century (LSCA) makes in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is that it requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect those most vulnerable to chemical exposures. It’s a concept that was not part of TSCA. But exactly who it will protect and how the EPA will interpret this requirement remains to be seen. Comments from environmental, public health advocates and medical professionals at the EPA’s August 9th and 10th public meetings suggest this provision will be key to determining the bill’s effectiveness.
To understand what the new law leaves open to interpretation, it helps to take a look at its language. The Lautenberg Act does not contain the word “vulnerable.” Instead it uses the term “susceptible subpopulation.” In his remarks at the bill’s White House signing ceremony, President Obama noted that the new “law will help protect Americans, especially those who are particularly vulnerable to chemicals – and that includes children, and pregnant women, and the elderly, and poorer communities.” The law actually says this:
“The term ‘potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulation’ means a group of individuals within the general population identified by the Administrator who, due to either greater susceptibility or greater exposure, may be at greater risk than the general population of adverse health effects from exposure to a chemical substance or mixture, such as infants, children, pregnant women, workers, or the elderly.”
How the EPA ends up defining this vulnerability will have a significant influence in how it prioritizes chemicals for review. It will also determine how effectively those evaluations protect human health. And while the law makes no explicit mention of environmental justice, it’s clear from speakers’ comments that EPA will be asked to consider this as well.
Early-life, social, economic and geographic determinants of health
At the EPA’s August 9th public meeting on chemical prioritization, several speakers including Tracey Woodruff, professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, Katie Huffling of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Jennifer Lowry of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke about the importance of considering specific developmental life-stages that are especially sensitive to chemical exposures. Early life and prenatal exposures, they explained, can have profound impacts, especially on children’s neurological health and development. Lowry noted these exposures come at such a crucial time and “have no counterpart in adult life.”
Katie Tracy of the Center for Progressive Reform, Ansje Miller of Center for Environmental Health and Pam Miller of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council among others, urged EPA to include social and economic – and geographic – factors that make people particularly vulnerable to chemical exposures. That, said Tracy, includes access to preventative health care. Miller stressed the importance of considering the unique chemical exposure burdens borne by communities in Arctic Alaska, a part of the world where persistent toxics accumulate. Sass, Tracy and others also stressed the importance of the EPA considering workplace exposures as part of its chemical prioritization and reviews.
As written, the Lautenberg Act leaves much to the EPA’s discretion when it comes to deciding what it means to protect those “susceptible subpopulations” most vulnerable to chemicals exposure. Yet this provision clearly provides an opening for those advocating for children, for workers, for fence-line and other disproportionately burdened communities to push EPA to include these groups as it begins implementing the Lautenberg Act.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including National Geographic News, the Intercept, Scientific American, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Civil Eats, The Guardian, Yale e360, In These Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and The Nation.