What Happened to Good Intentions ?Posted: February 2, 2015
What happened to President Obama’s promise to divorce politics from science ? More specifically, what happened to those good intentions to assess dangerous chemicals more quickly at the EPA ? When Lisa Jackson came on board as the new EPA administrator in 2009 during the first Obama term, she was fully supportive of the president’s promise. She knew the EPA needed to assess 50 chemicals a year to do its job properly. Jackson quickly rolled out a plan to break through the logjam of the Bush years when the EPA was only averaging five assessments per year. Jackson’s plan seemed easily achievable and needed only a little tweaking regarding the inner workings of bureaucracy. It required no congressional approval and the Republican party never passed any legislation to block it.
It seemed like a great start for Jackson who is educated as a chemical engineer. It is interesting to note that she attended Tulane University on a scholarship from Shell Oil Company. She graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1983 and earned her Master of Science degree, also in chemical engineering, from Princeton University in 1986. Jackson had some valid environmental experience from working in a variety of positions beginning at the EPA involved in toxic waste clean-up issues and moving into the top position as Commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before being nominated to head the EPA for Obama. Even so, New Jersey environmental activists when asked were divided in their opinion of her work at the NJ Dept of Environmental Protection agency and the split seemed to be between those who work on energy and climate policy in the state’s capital (who were supportive of her) and those who work on toxic cleanups at the local level who were critical of her.
In spite of all the good intentions, since 2012, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year it completed only one assessment. More worrisome is the indication that the agency has now embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays. I learn a lot about the chemical industry in reading Plastics News. I know that they have had impacts on LEED v4 as well. Though chemicals are important in our business and in everyday life, I can’t shake the feeling that the industry as a whole can’t be entirely trusted to consider the people’s health and welfare over profits when making decisions.
There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today. You might think that the government tests each chemical to assure that it’s safe. However, that is NOT true in the United States. Unlike the European Union, in the US, chemicals are assumed to pose no health risk unless the EPA proves otherwise. This task is left to a small program within the EPA called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS. Jackson wanted to drastically cut the time spent on each chemical assessment from an average of seven years to less than two years. Yet almost immediately the chemical industry found ways to thwart Jackson’s plan with the help of certain Republicans in Congress. Although the GOP didn’t control either chamber in Obama’s first two years, some Republican lawmakers still found ways to delay the application of science at the EPA in favor of insignificant details.
Here is one example –
In the early days of our contract furniture business the collateral furniture pieces we made had a foundation of particle board that was then covered with plastic laminate or wood veneer. One good thing about particle board is that it is made with 100 percent recycled materials. The tiny wood chunks and sawdust that go into it are usually reclaimed waste from sawmills and lumber yards. That means that some manufacturers are now using wood that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
However, particleboard isn’t part of the green-building pantheon. The reason is that the resin glue that binds the wood fibers and provides structural strength contains formaldehyde which emits carcinogenic gases into the air from the finished boards. At surprisingly low levels these formaldehyde emissions produce a pungent odor and they can pose a health risk. For decades, formaldehyde (which turns up in many other building and consumer products including automobiles and even no-iron shirts) emissions have been known to cause eye, nose and respiratory irritations in sensitive people. The World Health Organization has classified formaldehyde as a carcinogen. EPA scientists began evaluating the chemical in 1998 and determined that it was linked to nasal cancers and leukemia. To be honest, all wood naturally emits minute amounts of formaldehyde.
Particleboard inevitably became part of discussions regarding how far beyond “minute” it is safe to go because the fabricated material is one of the primary sources of indoor formaldehyde emissions. In lab tests, formaldehyde emissions from particleboard average about 0.2 parts per million. Greenguard Environmental Institute was a nonprofit group that tested and certified formaldehyde emission levels in building-products and furnishings. According to Marilyn Black, an environmental chemist and the original founder of Greenguard, above 0.3 parts per million almost everyone will notice their eyes watering and nose and throat becoming irritated. In 2011, UL Environment acquired ownership of Greenguard and as such is no longer a non-profit.
Georgia-Pacific makes particleboard with formaldehyde. It is owned by Koch Industries’ whose billionaire owners Charles and David Koch financially influence politics. The American Chemistry Council, a trade association and lobby group for the chemical industry, said in a statement in defense of the formaldehyde industry – “The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments.” Who do you want to believe ? I certainly have a preference.
Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana blocked the EPA appointee who would oversee the IRIS program until the agency agreed to get a second opinion on its formaldehyde assessment. The EPA agreed to have the National Academy of Sciences review its formaldehyde draft. The academy is considered the preferred scientific adviser at the national level but the panel reviewing the formaldehyde assessment didn’t focus on whether the EPA was right about the science. Instead it criticized the formaldehyde draft for being confusing and made suggestions on how to make future IRIS reports clearer. This seemingly valid perspective actually made the chemical industry very happy.
So back to what happened . . . What put the brakes on the EPA’s intention to complete chemical assessments in a timely manner ? The short answer – the chemical industry’s lobbyist and former EPA official Charlie Grizzle. By leveraging the National Academy’s criticisms about the clarity of the formaldehyde assessment, Grizzle and others got language inserted into legislation that delayed all 47 chemical assessments that were in progress at the time. They did this by instructing the EPA to adopt the academy’s recommendations and explain to Congress how it was going to implement those regulations for ongoing and new assessments.
William Ruckelshaus, who ran the EPA for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, said getting the National Academy to review the EPA’s scientific findings is a common delay tactic used by industry that endangers the public health. He said that delaying the publication of adverse findings is an unconscionable act on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemicals and derives economic benefit from that activity. Ironically, last year the National Academy subsequently released its own assessment of formaldehyde. I’ll bet you guessed it already !! It agreed with the EPA’s findings that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Regrettably it has been 17 long years that the EPA has been trying to get its formaldehyde assessment completed and even now, it is still mired in delays.
And the situation remains worrisome because in July 2012, Dr. Kenneth Olden took charge of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, which is who oversees IRIS. While a director at the National Institutes of Health, Olden raised eyebrows by collaborating with the American Chemistry Council to fund scientific research. It should not be surprisingly then that his appointment has won praise from the chemical industry and certain Republicans for his embrace of the procedural changes to assessment reports as suggested by the National Academy of Sciences.
Companies in the particleboard industry say that they HAVE voluntarily reduced formaldehyde emissions from their products by 80 percent in 20 years. I believe it but Yikes !! Certainly, we can all be thankful for that much. The particleboard industry could bring its formaldehyde emissions down simply by using a different glue – phenol formaldehyde resin. Emissions from particleboard made with that glue are so low that some green rating systems give points to home builders for using it. According to Healthy House Institute, Urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue off-gasses considerably more formaldehyde than Phenol-formaldehyde (PF) glue. Georgia-Pacific Chemicals does manufacture and offer a Phenol-formaldehyde glue under the tradename LEAF®. The product is considered by them to be a low-emission resin for use in particleboard and MDF. LEAF GB resins may be melamine-formaldehyde, melamine-urea-formaldehyde or phenol-formaldehyde based and GP believes they may meet some green building standards.
As often happens, what California demands serves all of the citizens of the United States because their influence in the marketplace is that strong. The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board has established low emission standards for the off-gassing of formaldehyde that should result in safer substrate products becoming more common in the marketplace nationwide. The first emission standards were implemented on January 1, 2009. The latest update on this issue was posted at their website on May 23, 2014 (see my information resources below for that link).
~ Information Resources
“Obama’s EPA breaks pledge to divorce politics from science on toxic chemicals” posted by David Heath on Jan 23, 2015 – http://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/01/23/16641/obamas-epa-breaks-pledge-divorce-politics-science-toxic-chemicals
Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System – http://www.epa.gov/iris/
Lisa P Jackson, EPA Administrator 2009-2013 posted at Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_P._Jackson
“A Solution to the Particleboard Problem?” by Katherine Salant posted May 31, 2008 at the Washington Post – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/30/AR2008053001485.html
Greenguard Certification from UL Environment – http://greenguard.org/en/index.aspx
“Formaldehyde-Based Glues” posted at Healthy House Institute – http://www.healthyhouseinstitute.com/hhip-780-Formaldehyde-Based-Glues
Adhesives/Binder Resins offered by Georgia-Pacific Chemicals – http://www.gp-chemicals.com/Adhesives_Binder_Resins_Product_Category
Composite Wood Products ATCM (airborne toxic control measure) – http://www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/compwood.htm
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer