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Taking on a Toxic Legacy

UMD Researchers Say EPA Needs New Approach to Regulating Complex Stews of Harmful Chemicals

By Kelly Blake

playground with smoke stacks in background

The EPA has been slow to protect Americans from toxic chemicals, often citing the complexities of working out which substance is to blame for the harm, according to a new article by University of Maryland public health and public policy researchers.

Photo by iStock

While the Biden administration moved last month to regulate polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs—a group of commonly used “forever chemicals” linked to cancers and reproductive harms—a recent article by two University of Maryland researchers poses difficult questions about whether the Environmental Protection Agency can act quickly enough to confront the insidious toxic crisis caused by such pollutants.

Writing in Environmental Health, environmental health sciences Associate Professor Devon Payne-Sturges of the School of Public Health and Associate Professor Robert Sprinkle of the School of Public Policy say the EPA has known much about the negative impacts of chemical exposures for many years, but historical and internal barriers have hindered the agency’s ability to protect our health.

Environmental health advocates welcomed the action to regulate PFAs, but the substances used to manufacture everything from frying pans to dental floss to fabrics, have long been detectible in our water, food, air and soil—even in the blood of newborn babies.

“In the face of all the knowledge about exposure to multiple chemicals, why is it that the agency hasn’t been more vocal that this is a significant public health issue?,” said Payne-Sturges, a former assistant center director with the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. “They haven’t made the effort to utilize their existing authorities.”

Payne-Sturges studies how environmental health policy is made and the ongoing obstacles to translating science into protective regulations; she pays particular attention to the most vulnerable communities, where poverty, a lack of access to healthy food and other social stressors may compound the negative health impacts of toxic exposures. Environmental health issues disproportionately affect low-income populations and communities of color, and the continuing impasse in environmental policymaking means that these communities continue to be left behind, she said.

In their article, Payne-Sturges and Sprinkle examine the historical and contemporary science and political barriers that are preventing policy advancements. Among the problems, the federal guidelines on regulating chemical mixtures have prevented the EPA from assessing chemicals in combination, even though environmental impacts on human health are not caused by single pollutants, chemicals or hazards in isolation.

The scientific challenges of studying complex mixtures involving numerous toxicants led some at the EPA to believe that they could not act meaningfully to regulate them. “They kind of throw up their hands,” Payne-Sturges said.

The article also details how industry groups have historically derailed efforts to implement regulations of toxic substances, with lobbyists exercising undue influence, she said.

The EPA should not only change how risk assessment is done from a scientific perspective, but should think more broadly in its search for regulatory solutions, Payne-Sturges said.

She lauded EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s efforts to bolster the agency’s legal authority to address cumulative risks and impacts, but said regulators need to include the perspectives of “people who have an imagination and can be creative in this area. You’re not going to get far with the old guard.”

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