Scott Pruitt was confirmed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 17, 2017.
Original photo by Gage Skidmore Scott Pruitt was confirmed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 17, 2017.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would fast-track approval for new chemicals previously slated for wide-ranging safety reviews under an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) passed by Congress last year, prompting protests from environmental advocates and some sustainable design groups. EPA representatives said the agency is cutting red tape and making it easier for chemicals manufacturers to get new products on the market, but some are accusing the EPA of putting industry demands above public health.

Until last year, the TSCA—a landmark environmental law that gives the EPA authority to regulate hazardous chemicals—had not been reauthorized since President Gerald Ford signed it into law in 1976. But in 2016, Congress passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, a bipartisan compromise bill making it easier for the EPA to order reviews of new chemicals under the bill and charge their manufacturers for testing.

Since then, some 600 new chemicals have become “stuck” in that review process, according to an EPA press release, a backlog the agency said last week it has now “eliminated.”

“EPA can either be a roadblock to new products, or it can be [a] supporter of innovation and ever-improving chemical safety,” said EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in the release.

The American Chemistry Council praised the move. But Dr. Richard Denison, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, called the announcement “highly disturbing,” and said it undercuts public confidence in the EPA’s implementation of the TSCA. Many of the chemicals affected are used in buildings, from flooring finishes to elements of foam insulation.

“The EPA also appears to be seeking to re-create the infamous Catch-22 of old TSCA under which EPA could only require testing where it already had evidence of risk,” Denison says.

The rule also renews debate about the federal government’s role in banning asbestos. Advocates pushing for reform of the TSCA have long pointed to its failure to fully ban the cancer-causing fiber as a symbol of the law’s ineffectiveness. But in November, the EPA included asbestos on a list of 10 chemicals prioritized for review as part of the 21st Century Act. The agency is expected to complete its initial review of those chemicals as soon as next year.

But environmental advocates are worried those reviews won’t result in strong consumer protections. They point to the EPA’s announcement that it will only review new chemicals for the “intended uses” submitted to the agency by their manufacturers, instead of ruling on the chemicals safety for all potential uses.

“I’m concerned about how the EPA will evaluate those chemical assessments,” says Yogin Kothari, a lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Jim Vallette, research director of the nonprofit Healthy Building Network submitted a series of reports to the EPA in March about the 10 chemicals slated for review. He said architects should avoid specifying products that use synthetic poylmer, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in their designs to reduce demand for asbestos. (Asbestos is used in the production of chlorine, and chlorine is used to make PVC.)

“The chlorine industry has tried to exempt itself from TSCA,” Vallette says, “but they have not won that battle yet.”

The EPA had previously declared asbestos “one of the most hazardous substances to which humans are exposed in both occupational and nonoccupational settings,” and its use was widely—but not entirely banned—in the United States.

However, Kothari says the long-term trend is toward fewer toxic chemicals in the built environment, even with the EPA cutting back regulations.

“The businesses using safer chemicals will win out in the long run,” Kothari says. “Even if this EPA doesn’t put strong regulations on toxic chemicals, future ones will.”

States may still seek waivers to impose their own restrictions on certain chemicals. Eight states had already passed their own rules before the 2016 TSCA overhaul: California, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Kothari and other advocates say they expect state governments to act where the EPA has indicated it will step back.

Correction: This article originally stated that some PVCs are reinforced with asbestos and used in certain floors, siding, and pipes. This is not the case. Asbestos is used in the production of chlorine, and chlorine is used to make PVC. “Asbestos is not used in PVC piping products or vinyl siding products, and it was voluntarily phased out of vinyl flooring products in the mid-1980s,” writes Richard Doyle, president and CEO of the Vinyl Institute, in a letter to ARCHITECT. ARCHITECT regrets the error.