EPA Takes Aim at Toxics in Dyes, Flame Retardants, Detergents
WASHINGTON, DC, August 18, 2010 (ENS) – The potential human health risks of chemicals widely used in dyes, flame retardants, and industrial laundry detergents have prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study and potentially ban their manufacture and use.
The EPA today released “action plans” that address benzidine dyes, hexabromocyclododecane, HBCD, and nonylphenol, NP/nonylphenol ethoxylates, NPEs used in both consumer and industrial applications.
“These chemicals have been detected in people,” the EPA declared.
“The action plans announced today are examples of EPA’s renewed dedication to improve chemical safety to protect the health of the American people and the environment.” said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
“These action plans lay out concrete steps EPA intends to take to address the risks associated with chemicals commonly used in this country,” Owens said.
Benzidine dyes are used in the production of consumer textiles, paints, printing inks, paper, and pharmaceuticals and may pose health problems, including cancer.
NP/NPEs are used in many industrial applications and consumer products such as detergents, cleaners, agricultural and indoor pesticides, as well as food packaging.
HBCD is used as a flame retardant in expanded polystyrene foam in the building and construction industry, as well as in some consumer products. HBCD has been shown to be persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment and may pose potential reproductive, developmental, and neurological effects in people.
Mike Walls, American Chemistry Council vice president of regulatory and technical affairs, says the industry supports modernizing the way chemicals are managed, but says the EPA’s action plans for these particular chemicals are not thoroughly grounded in science.
House fire in Manassas, Virginia. (Photo courtesy Manassas Fire Dept.)
Walls expressed concern that flame retardants might not be available when needed.
“HBCD has unique functional and beneficial properties, including protecting human lives and property from fire,” Walls said. “Flame retardants save lives, reduce injuries and help prevent damaging fires. In addition, polystyrene foam insulation made with HBCD makes a significant contribution to the energy efficiency of homes and buildings, helping to minimize fossil fuel use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
“The safety of polystyrene foam insulation made with HBCD has been researched extensively and evaluated by regulatory bodies in numerous countries,” said Walls. “Most recently, a comprehensive risk assessment by the European Union identified no health risk to consumers from HBCD use in polystyrene foam insulation.”
But the Sierra Club, Environmental Law and Policy Center and Workers United/SEIU today circulated a joint statement praising EPA’s action.
“Union members have been demanding government and industry action on toxic detergents for over half a decade. The detergents have been banned in Europe and Canada for almost a decade,” said Eric Frumin, health and safety director for Workers United/SEIU. “We commend Administrator Jackson for acting swiftly on these hazards, and call upon the laundry industry to get rid of these chemicals immediately, as they have already done Canada and in Connecticut.”
The plan announced by EPA includes further health and safety studies of the effects of NPEs on people and the environment, while beginning the process to regulate the chemical under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Future actions would add NPEs to the Toxics Release Inventory and encourage the use of safer substitutes.
“We know these chemicals are highly toxic and we know there are safer alternatives,” said Albert Ettinger, senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “If we want to protect public health, then NPEs should stop being used for many of their current applications. This action by the EPA is an important step in that direction.”
Exposure to low levels of NPE has been shown to create “intersex” fish, male fish that produce female egg proteins, the Sierra Club points out, saying cases of “intersexed” fish have been documented “from the Potomac River to the Pacific coast.”
“When chemicals in our environment, such as NPEs, affect the gender of fish, it’s a danger sign that more scrutiny is needed for chemicals we produce and use,” said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program.”But Congress must give EPA the regulatory tools it needs to control dangerous chemicals more effectively.”
In 2007, Sierra Club, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Workers United and three other nonprofit groups petitioned the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act to require further toxicity testing of NPEs and to take steps to control it. EPA denied the petition.
But following litigation and an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the groups said today’s action marks initial steps by the Obama administration to address the health and environmental risks of NPEs.
The EPA is considering a range of actions under the Toxic Substances Control Act such as adding HBCD and NP/NPE to its new Chemicals of Concern list. This previously unused authority under the Toxic Substances Control Desk signals the agency’s commitment to use the tools currently available, while supporting legislative reform of the Act now working its way through Congress.
The agency could issue significant new use rules for all three chemicals.
For HBCD and benzidine dyes, the agency could impose new requirements for reporting to its Toxic Release Inventory and could potentially ban or limit the manufacture or use of the chemicals.
In addition to EPA’s efforts, the Textile Rental Services Association, which represents 98 percent of the industrial laundry facilities in the United States, has committed to voluntarily phase out the use of NPEs in industrial liquid detergents by December 31, 2013 and industrial powder detergents by the end of 2014.
“While EPA intends to address the potential risks associated with these chemicals,” Owens said, “we are pleased that the industrial laundry industry has decided to not wait for regulatory action to be completed by the agency and is voluntarily taking steps now to phase out the use of NPEs.”