The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US, recently faced criticism for approving a boat fuel ingredient made from discarded plastic. The EPA is a federal government agency responsible for protecting people and the environment from significant health risks. According to current and former EPA scientists, this ingredient may cause a lifetime risk of cancer in humans. The EPA’s decision has led to discussions and concerns regarding the agency’s regulatory protocols and the possible health implications of the fuel component.
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The EPA’s decision
According to federal law, the EPA is required to conduct a safety assessment of the carcinogenic (cancer-causing) fuel ingredient before allowing its launch in the market.
If the component fails the safety tests and is found to pose outrageous health risks, then it is not approved until dealt with risks. However, the EPA gave consent to Chevron, a US-based fuel-producing company, to proceed with the production of the plastic-based boat fuel ingredient at its refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Though this component can contaminate water and air, the only order passed by the EPA was for the safety of workers. It stated workers should wear gloves during the production process. The EPA stated that the scientists were unnecessarily exaggerating the risks.
What are plastic-based chemicals?
Plastic-based chemicals are chemical substances or compounds used in the production of plastic. These include plastic additives such as stabilisers, flame retardants, colourants, and polymers like PVC, polyethylene, polypropylene, etc. These chemicals are made to shape plastic materials and enhance their appearance and properties, including durability, flexibility, strength and transparency.
Plastic-based chemicals are generally produced through polymerization. In this process, monomers (small molecules derived from petrochemical sources) are linked together to form long chains called polymers. Also, these chemicals can be derived through another process called plastic recycling. During this process, the plastic is broken down into its constituent components (monomers) to convert it into new chemicals.
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EPA’s fallacious consent order
The EPA approved many plastic-based fuels produced by Chevron. The Guardian and ProPublica have highlighted risks associated with these fuels in their previous reports. One of the EPA’s consent orders revealed that jet fuel produced by Chevron could cause toxic air pollution, exposure to which can affect 1 in 4 people to develop a lifetime risk of cancer. To know more about the risks associated with the boat fuel ingredient, ProPublica requested the EPA’s risk assessment under the Freedom of Information Act.
This 203-page risk assessment report disclosed that this plastic-based boat fuel ingredient is far more dangerous and has a higher risk of cancer. But this piece of information was not included in the consent order. According to the assessment, every person exposed to air pollution caused by burning boat fuel would be expected to develop cancer. “Such risks are exceedingly unusual,” said Maria Doa, a former EPA scientist.
There was another risk associated with the ingredient that was not included in the consent order. For every 7 out of 100 people who ate fish raised in water contaminated from this fuel ingredient would be expected to have cancer. The risk level of this ingredient is a million times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable and six times worse than the risk of lung cancer from smoking.
When asked why the agency had not included these risks in the consent order, the EPA admitted making a mistake. “This information was inadvertently not included in the consent order,” said EPA.
Protecting people and the environment
Another reason given by the EPA to present a false consent order was it believed that risks associated with the new chemical were similar to those fuels that have been produced for years. But the Toxic Substance Control Act, a federal law that protects human health and the environment by testing chemical substances, asked the EPA to review every new chemical and perform safety measures on them no matter how similar they are to the existing ones. But the agency didn’t conform to these regulations.
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Six environmental organisations are concerned about the fuel ingredient’s risks and are questioning the agency’s safety protocols. These organisations are Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Toxic-free Future, the Sierra Club, Beyond Plastics, Moms Clean Air Force and Environmental Defense. The groups stated that the EPA failed to bear its responsibility and asked it to withdraw its consent order.
The risk assessment revealed that cancer is not the only issue. Some other fuels also pose risks to infants, but the agency has not taken any protection measures to limit these. This action of the EPA has ignited disputes among the public and environmental organisations. This decision has also sparked doubts about the agency’s regulatory processes and public safety.
Seeing the public’s and organisations’ reactions, EPA declared that Chevron has not started manufacturing new fuels. Also, the agency proposed a new rule stating companies must contact the EPA before producing any of the 18 fuels and related compounds listed in the Chevron consent order. The agency would perform required tests to check whether the new fuels contain any harmful ingredients found in plastic, such as heavy metals, PFAS and dioxins. The new rule will allow Chevron to undergo a rigorous review before producing the fuels.
But the environmental advocates are still not convinced by the agency’s new rule. They think that new fuels will pose risks even without additional contamination. “This new information just raises more questions about why they didn’t do this the right way,” said Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy at NRDC. “The more that comes out about this, the worse it looks.”