The Case for a Strengthened E.P.A. Has Never Been More Clear

Steven Ziemann, Apr 19, 2023

Since its inception in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been the official federal environmental regulatory agency of the U.S. What was seen as a positive social change soon became a downward spiral of inaction. The inadequacy of the EPA and current regulations were shown through its responses to recent environmental failures, like those in East Palestine, Ohio [1], or the Flint, Michigan water crisis [2]. Today, there are tens of thousands of chemical substances used in cosmetics, energy, pesticides, retail, and the military. The EPA has not even begun to scratch the surface of the thousands of chemicals used in daily life. Current legislation allows companies to use toxic chemicals – some carcinogenic, some causing renal failure, some causing heart murmurs – without telling the EPA or the public. The EPA needs powerful legislation, overhauled testing of toxic substances, and a stronger commitment from all branches of government to protect the environment and ourselves as the agency once did after its creation.

The Limits of an Executive Agency

The EPA is an executive agency that operates under the federal executive branch under the supervision of the president. This means that while the EPA can create rules or policies within its scope, true legislative power remains with Congress [3], and courts have rescinded various EPA rules citing a lack of power as an executive agency, most notably on an asbestos ban in 1991 [4]. Beginning in the 1970s, the EPA successfully implemented and enforced necessary environmental regulations: the Clean Air Act (‘70), the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Act (‘71), and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (‘72) [5]. While EPA has made strides in passing rules to protect us, from 2018 to 2021 there was a 50% drop in EPA inspections and investigations [6], a decline that has continued for years under presidents of both parties. Starting under Reagan and continuing into the 21st century, the EPA has had to remain flexible despite instability and the wavering support of Congress and the president. The agency faced significant budget cuts under Reagan, G.W. Bush, and Trump [7]. Even under the Obama administration, which supported environmental regulations, sharp budget cuts meant a 22% decrease in staff in the agency’s enforcement program [8]. Trump repealed more than 100 environmental regulations including greenhouse gas and clean water protections, as well as numerous toxic substances protections for mercury, lead, asbestos, and pesticides [9]. It is no wonder the EPA has had inconsistent results: with fluctuating budgets, uncertain staffing, and the enacting and subsequent rescinding of regulations, the EPA has unstable ways of enforcing necessary protections.

Continuous Hazardous Contamination Needs Immediate Attention

In the past two decades, various hazardous substances have permeated everyday life and contaminated water, soil, air, and individuals, causing liver failure, cancer, immunodeficiency, and reproductive harm [10]; despite these dire concerns, the EPA cannot act on its power to truly regulate hazardous substances due to outdated and weak legislation. Due to air and water quality concerns in the 1970s, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976. TSCA gave EPA the authority to mandate reporting and keep an inventory of certain substances; however, TSCA only creates a list: if a company uses a chemical, they must report it to the EPA as being “in use,” but the EPA doesn’t determine its safety [11]. While a step in the right direction, the TSCA placed a heavy burden on the agency, forcing EPA investigators and attorneys to prove that a substance posed an “unreasonable risk” before it could be regulated or its use prohibited.  This obstacle is so difficult that the EPA still hasn’t fully banned asbestos [12], a carcinogen used rampantly in the 20th century for its inflammability and insulating properties. 

Instead of the responsibility falling on firms to prove a chemical’s safety, the responsibility falls on the EPA to test every single chemical in order to find its safety for human use. Private companies and industries know the toxicity of their chemicals, yet the EPA is out of the loop. For example, perfluorooctanoic acids (PFOAs), a group of substances known as "forever chemicals" (which don’t readily degrade in the environment or human bodies), have been found in the blood of 98% of individuals in the U.S. [13] PFOAs were even found to be transmitted through breast milk, with infants having levels ten times those of their lactating parent [14]. Under the TSCA, the EPA has an inventory of over 83,000 substances [15] logged in use today, and only a few hundred have been tested (less than nine have been banned [16]) due to the “unreasonable risk” standard and a lack of funding and staff.

What Do We Do Now?

The best way to reduce and prevent adverse health effects is to phase out hazardous chemicals and set limits for existing and new substances. Will this pose challenges and possible obstacles for industries that use these chemicals? Yes, but the benefits of protecting human life outweigh companies’ desire to use toxic chemicals in their products. With the passage of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act in 2016, the TSCA was amended, and the EPA now must test all current chemicals listed in their inventory [17]. The 83,000 substances and the backlog of around 2,000 new chemicals introduced each year mean it could take over a century to test and, if needed, ban chemicals from use [18]. Procedures must mandate that new chemicals coming onto the market be forwarded to the EPA for testing and evaluation before use, and those already in use be tested as well. This testing would allow the agency to create a list of substances in U.S. production and release their safety levels to the public. This process puts the onus on companies to prove a substance’s safety. The EPA cannot regulate what it doesn’t know exists; increased research and testing ensures the timely discovery of hazardous chemicals and subsequent action.

Companies have this data anyway, it’s the EPA that’s behind. A lawsuit against the DuPont Company and 3M showed the companies knew the toxicity of PFOAs since the 60s. The lawsuit’s investigation of PFOA contamination prompted an investigation by EPA [19], something it may not have readily done without the lawsuit. It is not enough to rely on companies alone. Congress should set standards based on the premise that any exposure to a substance can cause adverse effects, allowing the EPA to evaluate toxicity and implement chemical classes in order to classify a hazard level. Additionally, increased budgets would enable the EPA to employ more resources to test substances before and during use. Regulations should not be so transient with each change in the commander-in-chief. Increased testing, resource, and funding allocation, and regulatory power will create a more transparent and open world than the wild west that is U.S. environmental protection.


[1] Lester, S. (2023). Here’s the real reason the EPA doesn’t want to test for toxins in East Palestine. The Guardian.
[2] EPA. (2018). Report on Management Weaknesses Delayed Response to Flint Water Crisis.
[3] Justia. (2022). Executive Agencies.
[4] Justia. (1991). Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA, 947 F.2d 1201 (5th Cir. 1991).
[5] EPA. (2022). “Milestones in EPA and Environmental History.”
[6] Environmental Integrity Project. (2022). New EPA Enforcement Data Show Decade-Long Decline Sped-Up During Trump Era.
[7] Bocking, S., et al. History of US Presidential Assaults on Modern Environmental Health Protection. American journal of public health, 108(S2), S95–S103.
[8] Bocking, S., et al., loc. cit.
[9] Albeck-Ripka, L., et al. (2021). The Trump Administration Rolled Back More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List. The New York Times.
[10] EPA. (2023). Our Current Understanding of the Human Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS.
[11] EPA. (2022). Summary of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
[12] Scialla, M. (2016). It could take centuries for EPA to test all the unregulated chemicals under a new landmark bill. PBS News.
[13] Perkins, T. (2022). PFAS left dangerous blood compounds in nearly all US study participants. The Guardian.
[14] Feldscher, K. (2022). Stricter federal guidelines on ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water pose challenges. Harvard School of Public Health.
[15] EPA. (2022). Summary of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
[16] EPA. (2022). Regulation of Chemicals under Section 6(a) of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
[17] Gerlach, C. (2016). New Toxic Substances Control Act: An End to the Wild West for Chemical Safety? Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
[18] Environmental Integrity Project. (2022). New EPA Enforcement Data Show Decade-Long Decline Sped-Up During Trump Era.
[19] Rich, N. (2016). Rob Bilott v. Dupont. The New York Times.