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In a 10/22/17 article by reporter Eric Lipton, The New York Times outlined important ̶ ̶ and frightening ̶̶ directives from the new EPA administration regarding the study of chemicals’ health effects and the agency’s ability to regulate toxic substances in the interest of public health.
In essence, these directives will force EPA scientists to scale back their analyses for a long list of chemicals, redefining what constitutes a significant risk to exposed consumers, minimizing those risks, and helping the chemical industry avoid or delay regulation.
The likely effect of these moves will be particularly harmful to people with exposure to so-called “legacy chemicals” which are no longer in use, because of their toxicity. One of the most prominent of these legacy chemicals is PFOA, the compound long used to make non-stick and stain-resistant coatings. The manufacturers of PFOA did not begin to withdraw it from the market until 2002, after decades of widespread use, during which it went completely unregulated, due largely to the industry’s deception regarding its serious health effects.
PFOA’s “legacy” has been the contamination of vast areas of soil and drinking water throughout the United States, and the presence of PFOA in the bloodstream of the majority of Americans, including pregnant women and their unborn children, and infants ingesting it in their mothers’ milk.
Despite PFOA’s long use, the study of its health effects has only recently begun in earnest. While some risks, like kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis and other immune deficiencies, thyroid problems and birth defects have been plausibly linked to the chemical, its full toxicity requires much more study. People in places like Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, New York, North Bennington, Vermont, and Paulsboro, New Jersey have learned that they and their families have been exposed to PFOA for many years, without their knowledge or consent. They rightly feel entitled to have their government expend the resources necessary to identify all of the risks they now face. In 2016, EPA began just such an effort, but its new approach now threatens to leave PFOA victims in the dark.
It is tempting to argue that that this latest reversal is an example of why citizens cannot rely on the government to protect them from environmental harm, and why they often have to turn to the courts to seek compensation for that harm. [Full disclosure: Williams Cedar is among the law firms representing plaintiffs in Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh and Paulsboro]. But the stark reality is that lawsuits alone cannot solve the problem. Citizens must demand that their federal and state representatives recognize that the citizens ̶̶̶ not large corporations ̶ are their employers, and their jobs include the protection of the public health.