The Public Policy

Obsessive-Compulsive Environmentalism

The cleaner the enviroment, the more desperate enviros become to tackle the Next Big Scare.

By 3.22.13

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America’s massive and well-funded environmental industry is always in need of new worlds to conquer, or at least to attack with broom and dustpan. But the irony behind the modern-day environmental movement in America is that the more successful the movement is, the more petty subsequent goals necessarily become. There is no other choice. The big environmental organizations have mouths to feed and rents to pay just like any other business. They’re not going to offer up an attaboy to the nation and close up shop just because America has reached a level of environmental purity that would have been impossible to imagine just 50 years ago.

Risk, and more specifically the way that average American perceives risk, is the crux of the matter. So long as Joe and Josephine McOrdinary believe that substantial environmental hazards exist that threaten the well-being of themselves and their children, the environmental movement will continue to maintain traction and, most importantly from its perspective, a healthy balance in its checking account. The flip side of that scenario is the one that strikes terror into the hearts of Sierra Club fundraisers, for if the public ever perceives that today’s environmental risks are really pretty mundane, the good times will be over.

The pressing need to find new problems to solve is moving the big environmental organizations in new directions. Their unending search for risks to micromanage and overinflate are leading towards a growing war on chemistry and common sense. The key for the American people will be for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to leave the fringes to these environmentalists and pursue a smarter course that truly defines risk for American consumers.

The fact remains that because American industry is greatly improving its environmental practices and is proactively addressing all the “big problems,” there’s only one way for the EPA to stay relevant: find little “problems” -- even tiny, infinitesimal ones -- and inflate them into issues of tremendous importance. Combine the poorly understood concept of risk, a technically ignorant mainstream media, and a public that has been conditioned to equate the word “chemical” with “deadly poison” and you have the ideal conditions to do just that. And if that kind of approach to environmental management sounds as if it will require the services of a public relations firm rather than a team of scientists, no matter. The environmental movement has been comfortable working in this manner for decades.

It’s all about The Next Big Scare. It always has been. The focal point of the latest Next Big Scare involves four letters: TSCA, which stands for the Toxic Substances Control Act. Passed in 1976, TSCA provides a comprehensive approach to the safe manufacture and use of chemicals in the United States. Certainly the EPA seems to think so, based on its own thumbnail description of the Act. Here’s how the EPA describes what TSCA is at its website:

• It requires pre-manufacture notification for "new chemical substances" before manufacture.

• It requires testing of chemicals by manufacturers, importers, and processors where risks or exposures of concern are found.

• The EPA must issue Significant New Use Rules (SNURs) when it identifies a "significant new use" that could result in exposures to, or releases of, a substance of concern.

• The EPA maintains the TSCA Inventory, which contains more than 83,000 chemicals. As new chemicals are commercially manufactured or imported, they are placed on the list.

• It requires those importing or exporting chemicals to comply with certification reporting and/or other requirements.

• It requires reporting and record-keeping by persons who manufacture, import, process, and/or distribute chemical substances in commerce.

• It requires prompt reporting if any chemical not in the TSCA Inventory presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.

Sounds pretty comprehensive, doesn’t it? Sure, there are tweaks that could be added to modernize TSCA and make it more efficient, such as a sensible prioritization plan proposed by the American Chemistry Council. But for the most part TSCA has been pretty effective at doing what it was designed to do: prevent the public and the environment from being exposed to dangerous amounts of exceptionally toxic chemicals.

Unfortunately, the demands of Next Big Scare require us to believe that TSCA isn’t doing its job, that there are either: 1) large amounts of moderately toxic chemicals that have somehow slipped through the TSCA net, or 2) there are tiny amounts of incredibly toxic chemicals that have done so.

Of particular concern is EPA’s focus, in the name of risk management, on chemicals that may be found in the environment in incredibly tiny concentrations. The Agency’s approach to siloxanes, an innocuous class of compounds used in a variety of ways, including personal care products, lubricants, certain plastics, etc., is a prime example.

If you can find siloxanes in the environment at all, it’ll typically be in the parts per trillion level in the outlet of wastewater treatment plants. (One part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of about one drop of a liquid placed in the amount of water that would be contained in five hundred 30,000 gallon railroad tank cars.) It’s hard to justify worrying about any chemical in that kind of tiny concentration, but it would be downright lunacy to raise concerns over a class of compounds that has been studied as thoroughly as siloxanes. Study after study has failed to find any evidence to suggest that they present a threat to human health or the environment at the levels they are typically found in the environment, an assertion supported by the government of Canada for a typical siloxane called D5.

Yet, even though siloxanes have been thoroughly studied and are sufficiently removed in water treatment plants, the EPA is determined to conduct a massive study targeting the compounds. The companies that produce siloxanes, represented by the Silicone Environmental Health and Safety Council (SEHSC), have proposed voluntarily monitoring of siloxanes in the discharge from five worst-case wastewater treatment plants, and four industrial sites that have direct discharges from surface waters. The EPA originally asked for a program that would involve more than 40 sites, but has reduced that request down to a still-arbitrary 25 sites.

The difference between the two plans is significant for a couple of reasons. One is cost, which industry will bear. EPA’s plan remains substantially more expensive than the industry plan, an expense that cannot be justified by any evidence to suggest that siloxanes are present in the environment in concentrations large enough to be of concern.

But, it’s the second reason that is most troubling and most representative of the EPA’s approach to risk issues. The chemical industry has justified -- correctly in this writer’s opinion -- their plan on the basis of its being a worst-case study. Because siloxanes are used in consumer products, the worst cases are relatively easy to identify: find large population centers that could represent greater siloxane discharges. While that kind of common sense approach might make sense to you and me, the EPA has officially said that it has no interest in a worse-case approach. That’s a problem. That’s a big problem.

The reason one takes a worst-case approach when doing a risk assessment, especially when one has strong reason to suspect that the worst-case will be pretty darn insignificant, is that it prevents a lot of wasted effort and misuse of limited resources. If you can’t find any substantial risk in the worst-case, there’s no reason to go any further. However, when the federal agency tasked with managing and prioritizing environmental risks declares that it has no interest in such a science-based approach, one must question the Agency’s intentions.

The political agenda here is clear. And the synergistic relationship between Obama’s EPA and the environmental movement appears to be growing ever stronger. Thus, when an organization like the Sierra Club expresses concern about a particular chemical’s fate in the environment, the EPA will duly gather all of the data it can about that chemical, not in order to determine if there is a risk worth addressing, but rather to manage a risk whose existence and magnitude the Agency has preordained. 

That’s where we’re headed, if we haven’t already arrived there. In order to exist, the EPA must find new segments of society and the economy to regulate. In order to survive, environmental organizations and advocates must invent and inflate new “risks” that will frighten the gullible into opening their wallets. When the two come together, as they are now, there’s no room left for science.

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About the Author

Rich Trzupek is a chemist and the author of Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry.