Why are nurses suing the EPA?

How is it that our shampoo can contain carcino­gens and our floor cleaner repro­duc­tive toxicants?

For over a decade, nurses have been working with a wide range of partners, including other health profes­sionals, environ­men­tal­ists and health-affected groups, to update the nation’s chemical safety policy. Written in 1976, the Toxic Substance Control Act was an ineffec­tual safeguard for people and the environ­ment from exposures to toxic chemi­cals in our air, water, food and products. It did not require compa­nies to do any sort of pre-market testing of their products for toxicity or poten­tial harm.

Worse, it estab­lished that any chemi­cals that were already in the market­place (some 80,000 chemi­cals) were gener­ally regarded as safe” without any evidence about their safety or harm to confirm this assump­tion. This was a way to grand­fa­ther” a host of toxic chemi­cals and thus protect them from new require­ments for safety testing. The burden of proof regarding toxicity was placed on the public and the Environ­mental Protec­tion Agency, rather than requiring manufac­turers to prove that a chemical or product is safe before letting us use the product in our homes, schools or workplaces. In every instance in which the EPA tried to prove that a chemical was dangerous, the industry prevailed in keeping it on the market. The EPA could not even ban asbestos — a known carcinogen with unques­tion­able evidence of harm.

In 2016, after making signif­i­cant compro­mises, the Repub­lican Congress passed and Presi­dent Obama signed a new chemical safety law. The biggest compro­mise made was inclu­sion of a provi­sion that precludes states from passing chemical safety laws that are stricter than the new federal law once a chemical is under review by the EPA. Histor­i­cally, we have looked to progres­sive states to pass legis­la­tion on health and safety before federal laws have made their way through Congress and to the Presi­dent. Now, states are barred from further protecting their citizens from toxic chemi­cals, even if their citizens overwhelm­ingly want the added protection.

Another problem with the 2016 chemical safety law is the timeline for review of poten­tially, and often known, toxic chemi­cals. In the first year, only 10 new chemi­cals are required to be reviewed. By 2019, only 20 chemi­cals need to be under review at any given time. The Registry for Toxic Effects of Chemi­cals includes over 150,000 chemi­cals for which there is some toxico­log­ical evidence; over 80,000 chemi­cals are in the market­place. Think about how many years it will take to get through that list at a pace of 10 to 20 chemi­cals per year. Consider, too, how many years and decades we will continue to see preventable health effects from toxic chemi­cals that have not yet been reviewed.

Under current law: States cannot pass safety laws that are more restrictive than federal law once a chemical is under review by the EPA, the EPA is required to review only 10 to 20 chemicals per year, while over 80,000 chemicals are currently in the marketplace and the EPA is not required to consider the complete scope of ways a chemical is being used, allowing them to underestimate health risks.

As a nurse whose mantra is evidence-based practice,” I find it diffi­cult to help individ­uals and commu­ni­ties navigate the purchasing decisions required to live, work, learn and play in a healthy environ­ment because of the lack of infor­ma­tion about so many of the chemi­cals that make up our everyday products. Because we don’t require complete labeling for the vast majority of products, we can’t even do our own indepen­dent liter­a­ture searches regarding the ingredients.

When nurses started working on revamping the old chemical law, we had three elements that our coali­tion members agreed on: 1) We need basic health and safety infor­ma­tion on all chemi­cals in the market­place, 2) We must be able to protect the most vulner­able of our popula­tion, including the fetus, infants and children, from the effects of toxic chemi­cals, and 3) The EPA must have the power to ban chemi­cals that create the greatest risk of harm.

In June 2017, the EPA issued new guidance documents, as required by law, spelling out how they are going to review chemi­cals under the new law. These guide­lines, issued under an anti-regula­tion admin­is­tra­tion, allow the EPA to pick and choose which uses they will consider when deter­mining if the chemical poses an unrea­son­able health risk. Consider the case of lead. Lead can be found as a conta­m­i­nant in air, water, food, toys and even in lipstick. If the EPA elects to look at only one or two of these sources, they could under­es­ti­mate the health risks, allowing a toxic chemical to be used in products that would other­wise be deemed unsafe.

These new guide­lines were the last straw; nurses joined other organi­za­tions in suing the EPA for placing the public at an unrea­son­able health risk.

The new guide­lines fly in the face of our attempts to protect the public’s health,” said Katie Huffling, Execu­tive Director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.

Three separate suits were filed in District Courts around the country. It is antic­i­pated that the judges in the courts will consol­i­date the cases into one.

With so many policy changes occur­ring- — in health care, the environ­ment and other impor­tant areas — it is sometimes diffi­cult to keep up. We invite you to stay informed, join our calls, get involved and join a growing number of nurses who are concerned about poten­tially toxic chemi­cals in our everyday lives.

Follow the court case and get infor­ma­tion about chemical safety and chemical policy at www​.saferchem​i​cal​shealthy​fam​i​lies​.org.

Join our free monthly national calls with other nurses who are concerned about chemi­cals and public health policy. Get the details at the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environ­ments website, https://​envirn​.org/​p​o​l​i​c​y-advocacy.

Sattler Barbara Optimized

Barbara Sattler, DrPH, MPH, RN, FAAN, Professor, Univer­sity of San Francisco School of Nursing and Health Profes­sions ( and Board Member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environ­ments (https://​www​.enviRN​.org)