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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Despite Known Risks, EPA Has Little Authority To Regulate Chemicals

The sign in front of the EPA's Washington D.C. office. While the chemical PFOA has since been classified by the EPA as an "emerging contaminant," the agency has a difficult time regulating the chemical.

The news of the contamination of water wells in North Bennington and across the border in Hoosick Falls, New York, has drawn renewed attention to the chemicalPFOA. It has been used in making Teflon and other water-repellant coatings. The chemical has since been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “emerging contaminant.”  

But what exactly does that mean? And what kind of authority does the EPA have to regulate chemicals whose safety risks are unknown? The short answer to both questions is: not much. 

Use of the chemical PFOA in production is largely being voluntarily phased out over the last decade due to a series of lawsuits against one of the chemicals’ main manufacturers, DuPont. But scientists still question if the replacement chemicals are any safer. 

To learn more about the EPA’s limitations in regulating chemicals, and what is known about the health risks of PFOA, VPR spoke with David Andrews, a chemist with the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit consumer advocacy group.

On how the EPA regulates chemicals that may pose a safety risk: 

"The Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, and it is one of the only environmental statutes that hasn't had a major update since then when it was passed. We've essentially grandfathered in over 17,000 chemicals, and the EPA has very little authority to regulate and investigate the safety of those chemicals." 

PFOA is one of those grandfathered-in chemicals. 

What authority does the EPA have to require testing or to ban a chemical from use?

"The EPA's authority to ban a chemical was really tested when it attempted to ban asbestos and essentially failed. Moving on past that point EPA has relied on voluntary phase out, and they've had to negotiate these with manufacturers, to move the market essentially."

How did the EPA fail to ban asbestos?

"Part of the reason is that the standard of safety under the Toxic Substances Control Act, it is an unreasonable risk and that the EPA. has to take the least burdensome option in terms of regulating that chemical. And so they couldn't prove that banning asbestos was the least burdensome option for chemical manufacturers and industry in general.

It's that bar that is so high that the EPA cannot meet that standard for any chemical on the market essentially."

Who set the bar so high? 

"I have to imagine it was set by some of the lawyers and chemical lobbyist working to pass this language nearly four decades ago. Likewise for existing chemicals, companies only need to submit information to the Environmental Protection Agency when they find a significant risk to human health or the environment or they suspect there will be a significant risk in doing a study. But they don't necessarily have to do those studies. And so in many ways, it does seem that there's a disincentive to thoroughly investigate the safety of chemicals."

What do scientists know about the health risks of PFOA and just how worried should we be about exposure to it?

"In many ways, we have more information on this chemical than we do about most other industrial chemicals. And we also have a lot of information that came out of some of the original lawsuit against DuPont and that was for a contamination of the community around Parkersburg, West Virginia.

"What they found was that there was a probable link between exposure to testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, heart disease from high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension. Not everyone is necessarily going to get one of these diseases but it indicated that most likely there was an increased or elevated risk of developing one of those diseases through continuous exposure to PFOA in the drinking water.

"Recent science has indicated that there are other concerning health effects such as reduced effectiveness of vaccines, disruption of the immune system as well as potential endocrine effects or issues with reproductive organ development and these effects were occurring at levels at or below one part per trillion, which is an incredibly small amount."

Since manufacturers have been phasing out the use of PFOA over the last decade, what chemicals are they using in its place and what do we know about those the replacement chemicals? 

"There's still nonstick pans for sale, there's still durable water repellent coatings applied to fabrics jackets, in a number of other products. And so what the companies have done is move to a chemistry that involves a slightly shorter carbon chain length. And what effect that has on the chemistry is that the shorter chain perfluorinated chemicals are less likely to bioaccumulate in mammals and humans. They're expelled from your body more quickly.

"One of the reasons PFOA is so detrimental to health is that it takes three to five years to expel half of what you're exposed to. So if you're exposed to some today, in four years that level will only decrease by half. So the replacement chemicals are not as bio-cumulative, but there are concerns that they have some of the similar toxicity features and they still remain extremely persistent. And what that means is when they're released into the environment; they don't break down.

I think it's up to scientists as well as the regulatory agencies to make sure that we're taking an extremely close look at these replacement chemicals. We don't want to repeat the same mistakes we've made in the past."

Is this really a failure of, as you say, the regulatory agencies and scientists or those who put the rules in place? 

"I absolutely think that ... one of the key problems here is the inability of the EPA to regulate concerning chemicals. Even to keep track of where all these chemicals were used and where a potential release is and have occurred.

"When companies develop a new chemical and they send that information to the Environmental Protection Agency, they have to include all the safety testing they've done on that chemical. If they haven't done safety test then they don't have to provide it to the Environmental Protection Agency. It provides a disincentive to thoroughly investigate the health and safety of chemicals. That's a fundamental piece of information that's necessary to ensure that everyone has safe and clean drinking water." 

Updated 10:15 p.m. Tuesday, March 22 to include further comments from interview.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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