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IUR Update a Good Start, But a Missed Opportunity for Worker Health and Safety

Public Protections

On Tuesday, EPA finalized important revisions to its Inventory Update Rule (IUR), which is the federal government’s primary means of finding out what chemicals are being produced or used, where they’re being produced and used, and in what quantities. The revisions close up some major loopholes created by the Bush administration and should give the agency more accurate data for its chemical management program, which GAO tagged in 2009 as being at “high risk” of becoming ineffective.

EPA made some important improvements to the rule, now dubbed the Chemical Data Reporting (CDR) rule. Manufacturers will once again have to submit data every four years, instead of every five. When they do, they’ll have to submit data for each year since the last report, instead of just the data from the year in which the report is due. The generic threshold for having to report detailed information about downstream uses of a chemical will be shifted back to apply to any chemical produced at a site in volumes exceeding 25,000 pounds in a year. That closes a loophole created by the Bush administration, which required only basic chemical identification and simplified on-site production volumes for manufacturers who kept production volumes below 300,000 pounds during the reporting year. And to further ensure that we begin to develop a better picture of how chemicals are distributed in commerce, the standard for reporting information about downstream uses has been changed from the Bush standard of only that which is “readily obtainable” (which, by rule, absolved manufacturers from “extensive file searches”), to a better standard of “reasonably ascertainable.” Those changes and others will give EPA and the public a much better picture of how chemicals pervade our lives.

However, EPA missed an opportunity to use this new rule to really help out its sister agencies OSHA and NIOSH. In my blog post from last August, when EPA proposed the revisions that were finalized yesterday, I noted that, by EPA’s admission, the IUR/CDR data only enabled EPA to develop “qualitative exposure characterizations with relative ranking of low, medium, or high for characterizing potential exposures to various populations,” including workers. Those exposure characterizations are inadequate for supporting protective regulation. At the time, EPA asked the public to comment on whether the updated IUR should include additional data elements, such as worker tasks or occupational exposure monitoring, to improve risk management capabilities at EPA and other agencies. 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sent comments to EPA with some helpful advice. (Side note: This is the type of interagency commenting that deserves applause—open and transparent, instead of anonymous and funneled through OIRA, like so many agencies’ comments on IRIS risk assessments.) NIOSH highlighted the importance of the IUR/CDR data, stating that “no other ongoing data collection exists for estimating the number of workers exposed to chemical substances in the U.S.” Thus, NIOSH urged EPA to require annual reporting, to lower the reporting threshold to 10,000 pounds produced per year (or even 2,200 pounds for certain priority chemicals), and to include several new worker-focused data elements in the revisions. 

NIOSH suggested that EPA require manufacturers to report worker-focused information, including: forms of engineering control used at a site (general ventilation, local exhaust ventilation, or isolation); available worker medical surveillance data (including worker exposures and condition(s) monitored) for a priority list of chemicals; and a summary of occupational exposure monitoring (including activity, job title, or job tasks sampled). Furthermore, NIOSH suggested that EPA require submission of information about downstream occupational exposure data.

EPA essentially ignored NIOSH’s comments. The CDR rule does not ask for any information about engineering controls, medical monitoring, or occupational exposure sampling. The number of workers exposed will still be reported in estimated ranges (e.g., “at least 1,000 but fewer than 10,000 workers”), and those numbers will only be reported for the year in which the report is due. The reporting threshold was lowered, but not to the levels NIOSH had hoped for. (EPA came close for high-priority chemicals, setting a 2,500 pound reporting threshold.) 

The only bone that EPA threw to NIOSH was a new requirement that manufacturers whose chemicals will be used in a “commercial product” must estimate the number of commercial workers exposed, reporting it in the same broad ranges as industrial workers exposed. That’s important because the number of downstream workers is often much greater than the number of workers who produce a chemical and the processes used for production are often closed systems, whereas downstream uses aren’t always so well controlled. NIOSH gave an example of the problem in its comments:

OSHA evaluated the available information on hexavalent chromium exposures for its 2004 proposed rule. OSHA estimated that there were about 4000 exposed workers in 11 industries producing hexavalent chromium products, and this group included 650 workers exposed at the highest levels.  However, there were an estimated 184,000 workers exposed in end user applications such as welding and painting in general industry, construction, and shipbuilding. In addition, over 11,900 of these workers were in the category with the highest exposures.

The new CDR provisions might give NIOSH and OSHA researchers the first bits of data to develop similar exposure characterizations for other chemicals, but the rule could have done more. It was a missed opportunity, but overall, the new rule will help.

Public Protections

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