You may have already heard that the Trump administration is taking actions behind the scenes to weaken an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to protect us from PFAS chemicals. You may be outraged (but probably not surprised) to learn that these actions have been driven by a former chemical industry lobbyist—who’s now nominated to run our top consumer protection agency.
That’s right, this is the kind of plot thickening that movies are made of! But unlike a good movie, this story gets a little wonky and detailed right off the mark, so it’s important for us to break it all down so we can understand what we need to do to get our happily ever after.
What’s going on? And what’s a SNUR?
The EPA proposal that the Trump administration is trying to weaken is called a “SNUR,” which seems like the sound of a muppet snoring but stands for Significant New Use Rule. A SNUR is a rule that EPA issues in order to get advance notice about the new use of a chemical that could harm human health or the environment. (“New use” can also mean the resurrection of an old one.) Under the SNUR, EPA either approves or disallows the specific use.
This particular “SNUR” is for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have contaminated the tap water of millions of Americans and are present in everyday products like nonstick pans and waterproof jackets. This is problematic because exposure to these toxic chemicals is linked to cancer, immune diseases, and other serious illnesses. Chemical companies unleashed this class of chemicals with little or no safety testing. Today we find ourselves dealing with this toxic mess as a result.
What would EPA’s proposed SNUR do?
In 2006, EPA and eight major companies in the PFAS chemical industry entered into a voluntary agreement to phase out U.S. production of PFOA and PFOS, two of the oldest PFAS chemicals, by 2015. In 2015, EPA proposed a rule (the SNUR) that amounted to a de facto ban on certain PFAS chemicals (including but not limited to PFOA and PFOS) for which there were no ongoing uses. It also included an important de facto ban on resuming abandoned uses of these types of PFAS chemicals that had previously been allowed. In addition, the rule proposed to remove exemptions in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that allowed anyone to import these chemicals as part of a consumer product.
That 2015 SNUR was never finalized. However, when Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), one of the provisions we won required EPA to take final action on it by June 20, 2020. But then, a plot twist.
The proposed PFAS SNUR is now a much weaker version of the original proposal
Unfortunately, the version of the proposed SNUR that EPA released for public comment two months ago significantly watered down the earlier proposal. It limited which new PFAS-containing products would require SNUR notification and review before they can be imported to the US. This opened up a loophole through which imports containing hazardous PFAS could be imported and sold in the U.S., exposing families and continuing the cycle of harm.
In the comments we submitted along with 30 other environmental health groups, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families argued that this defeats EPA’s own goal of achieving maximum reduction of the presence of PFOA and PFOS—a subset of the larger class of PFAS chemicals—in people and the environment.
So, what happened?! What caused EPA to change course?
Answer: Nancy Beck. She is a former lobbyist for the chemical industry who was hired by the Trump administration for a senior position in the EPA’s chemical safety office. She is the White House staffer who has been front and center in this latest erosion of our public health protections.
In her current role at the White House National Economic Council, Dr. Beck has taken a lead role on PFAS chemicals. Senate Environment and Public Works Ranking Member Tom Carper sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler outlining his objections to the proposal. With that letter, Senator Carper included a very good timeline of the White House’s involvement in watering down the proposal, which perfectly aligns with Beck’s time in this role.
You may also remember when Dr. Beck used her proverbial red pen to weaken the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) “framework rules” for evaluating chemicals like asbestos and methylene chloride in 2017. This was the issue behind Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, et al v. US. EPA, a lawsuit that we won last fall.
Nancy Beck is now the Trump Administration’s nominee to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but she must be stopped. She is the absolute wrong choice to protect Americans from dangerous products.
How can we change the story?
Let’s not allow the chemical industry to write the script for our real lives. The EPA is supposed to protect our health and therefore must strengthen its final rule on these dangerous chemicals.
Let’s stop this from happening. The Senate should reject her nomination.
In the movies, just when it looks like the bad guys could win, heroes like you step in and become a powerful force. Grab your cape and get in the fight with us.