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What impact will Trump’s presidency have on safer chemistry?

An outlook on legislation and the marketplace Ι By Dr. Joel Tickner
President Donald Trump

Picture: Gage Skidmore

Despite being less than a month into the new Presidency, I am regularly asked my opinion on the implications of the 2016 U.S. Elections on safer chemistry. There has been no shortage of dire predictions or accolades for the actions that have been taken to date by the Administration.

As a scientist and someone who has worked on chemicals management and safer chemistry for almost two decades, it is hard to make many predictions without evidence of the directions the new Administration will take in this area. It is simply too early to tell, given that most agencies involved in safer chemistry, such as the U.S. EPA, are just beginning to put new leadership into place. We do have some interesting early indications, however.

  • At the end of the Obama administration, the EPA pushed forward a number of regulatory proposals for implementation of the revised Toxic Substances Control Act – TSCA, which was overwhelmingly supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

    On February 14, the EPA hosted a stakeholder workshop to discuss the process of risk evaluation for the 10 priority chemicals identified for risk assessment and management under the law by EPA. According to reports, EPA’s decisions on these priority chemicals will probably have an impact on the chemical selection decisions downstream chemical users make. Given the bipartisan support for the law, it is likely that implementation efforts will continue forward, though EPA’s actions under the law may be more constrained.

  • However, the Administration and current Congress have indicated a strong deregulatory direction (based on the often-refuted assumption that too many regulations hinder economic development). In the last couple of weeks there have been a number of Executive branch and legislative proposals that might undermine the ability of EPA and other regulatory agencies to implement policies, such as TSCA, that might drive safer chemistry.

    These include President Trump’s Executive Order mandating that federal agencies repeal two regulations for every new one they issue; the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act which would require that all new major regulations be approved by both chambers of Congress; and the Regulatory Accountability Act which would require multiple rounds of impact assessment before regulations could be implemented. The President has announced that new executive orders affecting the EPA may be issued by late February.

  • Despite these proposals, a number of state governments are continuing to put forward policy proposals and programs to advance supply chain transparency and safer chemistry (with new bills introduced in 16 states as of February 10), testing the provisions that limit the ability of states to implement chemicals management policies in the new TSCA.
  • And market leaders are continuing to drive safer chemistry. Leading retailers, such as Target, and brands such as Levi Strauss & Co., have recently announced far reaching policies on safer chemistry that may motivate supply chain activity on safer chemicals much more efficiently than regulations.
  • The EU and its Member States are actively implementing policies such as REACH. The European Commission strategy to move towards a Nontoxic Environment and the European Chemical Agency’s (ECHA) work to advance alternatives assessments and safer chemical substitution, coupled with implementation of authorization and restriction provisions of REACH demonstrate a strong interest in marrying restrictive policy with incentives that motivate R&D and adoption of safer chemistries, something that will affect companies even outside of Europe.

Based on these facts, I have the following observations.

The drivers for safer chemistry in the United States have not come primarily from the federal government but rather from the marketplace and from state and international policies (such as in Europe). Scientific, consumer, and marketplace concerns about the health and ecological impacts of chemicals are not going away and as such the drivers will continue. We have reached an important tipping point where investment in safer chemistry is the norm for forward looking, consumer facing companies.

“The drivers for safer chemistry in the United States have not come primarily from the federal government, but rather from the marketplace and from state and international policies.”

Despite pressure from reactive forces in industry that might feel emboldened by new deregulatory proposals from the Administration and Congress, large retailers, such as Walmart and Target, and major global brands are not likely to back off on their commitments to safer chemistry.

Groups such as the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3), a network of 100 firms across the supply chain and sectors, are demonstrating the market demand for and efforts to develop green chemistry solutions. The market interest in green chemistry investment was evident at a recent BGC3 Green & Bio-Based Start-Up Network meeting on catalyzing partnerships, hosted by Levi Strauss & Co.

Our current situation is not very different than what we saw some 15 years ago during the Bush Administration. There was little interest in or activity on chemicals management at the federal level and a deregulatory atmosphere. Given the backdrop, we focused on strengthening safer chemistry efforts in Europe, in the states, and in the marketplace.

With the Obama Administration, there was renewed interest in strengthening federal chemicals management activities, including leadership in implementing and reforming TSCA and strengthening the EPA’s Safer Choice program, which recognizes products made with safer chemistry. And while there was significant investment during the prior Administration in renewable energy and bio-based materials, there was very little investment or leadership in green chemistry.

If anything, the current Administration may back off of the regulatory agenda for safer chemistry and limit discretionary programs such as Safer Choice that influence the market, and perhaps more problematic, reduce research and development funding for innovative bio-based and green chemistry technologies. However, the new Administration’s “business-friendly” approach should provide an opportunity to reframe green chemistry in different terms – as an economic development, innovation and jobs creating activity that will strengthen U.S. manufacturing into the future.

While I’m concerned about the rapidly changing tone of the conversations about environmental health, science and innovation in Washington and some of the recent legislative and executive actions as well as leadership decisions, I’m optimistic that we have built such strong drivers and innovative supply chain collaborations that no matter what happens in our Nation’s capital, the momentum driving green chemistry will continue.


Joel Tickner

Dr. Joel Tickner

Dr. Joel Tickner is Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is a leading expert on chemicals regulation, regulatory science, and application of the alternatives assessment in science and policy. He has served as an advisor and researcher for several government agencies, international agencies, non-profit environmental groups, companies, and trade unions both in the U.S. and abroad.