Eye on Public Health: Gone but Not Forgotten

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When Scott Pruitt resigned from the EPA last week, there was heated speculation as to whether he actually wrote his resignation letter. The draft, which some believe to be fake, was poorly written and used the word “blessed” or a variation of it four times in a letter of only three short paragraphs. It also claimed “improved environmental outcomes.”

Whoever the writer was, he clearly had a sense of humor.

Before Pruitt left the agency, he lifted a regulation that limited the number of a certain kind of truck that pollutes more than 50 times more than the average truck. He also spent $43,000 of taxpayer dollars for a soundproof phone booth, flew first class to Morocco despite the fact the EPA has no business there, rented a condo from an industry lobbyist who had business before the agency Pruitt was in charge of, and used his position to try to get his wife a job. But these clear violations of the public trust overshadowed the real scandal.

Pruitt worked systematically to dismantle the EPA, which was founded to protect the environment and your health.

While I can’t say for sure who wrote his resignation letter, I think Pruitt resigned to distract everyone from new rules the EPA issued that determine how the agency will protect you from toxic chemicals. Only the new rules will actually protect dangerous chemicals from appearing too dangerous.

You see, Pruitt appointed Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry lobbyist, to oversee EPA’s chemical regulation. This is a huge job because the EPA must comply with the updated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the law Congress took more than 40 years to reform after the EPA was unable to ban asbestos and a number of other very dangerous substances under the old law.

TSCA requires that EPA find a way to protect people from 10 of the most dangerous chemicals. These include asbestos, methylene chloride (a chemical found in paint strippers that can kill people in a matter of minutes), HBCD flame retardants, and PERC, a chemical used in dry cleaning.

Methylene chloride was literally killing people so the EPA moved to ban it during the Obama administration. But the rule was not finalized so Pruitt and Beck stalled, despite the fact safer alternatives were available. Environmental health advocates campaigned to ban the chemical. Families of some of the victims testified before Congress. Still, the EPA under Pruitt’s leadership did not act. Then Lowes said it would remove the product from its shelves. Others followed. The EPA still hasn’t banned methylene chloride.

But maybe it would do a better job with asbestos? In new rules just revealed, EPA will not include “legacy uses” of asbestos when it considers risk. In other words, if you work in a building or live in a home that already has asbestos (that means most buildings built before 1977) EPA is not counting that exposure as a risk. That means EPA is white washing the real health risks of asbestos.

Wait. There’s more. For a number of the first 10 chemicals, EPA says it won’t count the risks to kids. Of course, this is from the same administration that opposed a statement saying breast feeding is good for babies. Since they couldn’t find a way to profit off of breast milk, let’s promote infant formula instead! Never mind that they want to sell powdered formula to mothers with limited access to clean water.

But I digress. So, let’s talk about what EPA proposes for PERC, a chemical widely used in dry cleaning that has created toxic plumes and contaminated water supplies. According to the new rule, which has yet to be finalized, if you live near a dry cleaner your exposure to PERC in the air, drinking water, or from its disposal in landfills won’t count when they add up the risk.

This is like Congressman Lee Zeldin telling voters that he works to protect the environment when he backs legislation that allows coal manufacturers to dump coal waste in rivers and streams. You can’t claim to protect the waters on Long Island when you’re contaminating them somewhere else. Water moves. So do chemicals.

And that matters when the EPA has been taken hostage by industry forces. While Pruitt has left, his replacement is a former coal industry lobbyist. So while no one’s sure who wrote Pruitt’s resignation letter, you can be sure that the coal and chemical industries are now writing the rules that are supposed to protect you from toxic chemicals.

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