Senators, families urge EPA to take stronger action on toxic chemicals

PHOTO: Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, appears before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 1, 2018.PlayJ. Scott Applewhite/AP
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Senators from both sides of the aisle and families personally affected by exposure to toxic chemicals had a message for the acting Environmental Protection Agency chief Wednesday: Take a more aggressive approach to regulating chemicals that could cause cancer.

Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asked Wheeler, in his first appearance on Capitol Hill since taking over at the agency, to commit to stricter rules on chemicals connected to health problems or cancer that have been found in communities across the country or ones connected to accidental deaths or illnesses.

The lawmakers said that the EPA has not followed through on a bipartisan reform bill passed in 2016 intended to strengthen regulation of potentially dangerous chemicals.

Loreen Hackett is from Hoosick Falls, New York, which is federally listed as a site contaminated with a type of chemical used in nonstick products and linked to health problems. Hackett started using social media to highlight the contamination in her family's blood from PFOA, a chemical previously used in manufacturing non-stick and waterproof products.

Hackett said her community is dealing with contamination from other chemicals in addition to PFOA, including something called Trichloroethylene, or TCE, that is used to degrease metals and causes cancer in humans, according to the EPA.

The EPA, CDC, and international agencies list TCE as a "known human carcinogen" and the EPA has been studying TCE as far back as 2011.

"We don't know the chemical cocktail of what our children are now being exposed to and have been exposed to. We don't know what's going to happen and as we watch our kids get sick and get cancer, you can't grasp in your head all the chemicals in their little bodies," Hackett told ABC News. "And we shouldn't have to be, especially something TCE, a human carcinogen, it should have been banned a while ago. It makes no sense."

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is not on the committee that met with Wheeler, held a press conference with Hackett and other families and activists calling for the EPA to ban the use of TCE.

In the hearing Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. said the EPA under Pruitt announced that it would not consider all the possible ways that people are exposed to chemicals like TCE and postponed an effort to ban the chemical.

"The scaling back of our bipartisan chemical safety law, one of the prouder moments that I've had as a senator, was set in motion by Scott Pruitt and I'm really hopeful that you're going to reverse course on what I think is a bad decision," Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said.

PHOTO: Sen. Cory Booker questions acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler during a hearing held by the the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Aug. 1, 2018, in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sen. Cory Booker questions acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler during a hearing held by the the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Aug. 1, 2018, in Washington, DC.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also asked Wheeler to make chemicals used in nonstick products and firefighting foams that have been found in drinking water and groundwater across the country a priority. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also asked that a report into the health effects of exposure to formaldehyde be released.

Wheeler said the EPA is looking at exposure to chemicals like TCE through the water or air and that the agency is working to move on a ban for a paint stripping chemical called methylene chloride and to release the formaldehyde report.

"It is tragic for any chemical to cause the death of a child and my heart goes out to those families impacted by that. Absolutely we need to be moving forward to do something on TCE and these other chemicals," Wheeler said.

Pruitt previously met with families of people who died from inhaling methylene chloride fumes and told the same committee in May that he would be moving "shortly" to regulate or ban the chemical.

"There's a lot of families from the paint stripping chemicals to those that are sitting behind you right now that are really relying on you to save lives. There are extraordinary injustices going on with this kind of inaction by your agency and I hope you'll move with all deliberate speed to address these concerns," Booker said.

The EPA is currently holding public meetings and working to declare PFOA and a related chemical PFOS as "hazardous." The agency says it expects to have a plan this fall.

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