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What's in a name?

The Center

EPA has announced that today, April 22, the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances (OPPTS) will be renamed the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Does April 22 ring a bell? It should. As EPA is undoubtedly aware, April 22 is Earth Day. So, what does name change mean, and is it appropriate to Earth Day?

 To explain their name change, OPPTS states:

One of EPA’s top priorities is assuring the safety of chemicals – pesticides and toxics – and this new name will better reflect the critical work we are doing in these areas, and also make clear that pollution prevention remains a key part of our efforts.

The new name incorporates two distinct changes: the replacement of “pesticides and toxic substances” with “chemical” and the insertion of the word “safety.”

OPPTS originated as simply the Office of Toxic Substances. Pesticides were incorporated in 1980, and pollution prevention in 1991. The hodge-podge nature of the name reflects the disjointed way in which the office grew. Former OPPTS officials described to us during our oral history project on TSCA how pesticides and pollution prevention were incorporated into the Office of Toxic Substances not because their missions aligned with that of OTS, but because those programs did not fit with any other offices. Replacing “pesticides and toxic substances” with the single word “chemical” both broadens the perceived scope of the office to all chemical substances, and may begin to erode EPA’s programmatic distinction between each sub-category of chemical.

The word safety has had a long and diverse history in government regulation, most notably as a part of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). There, “safety” had a very specific meaning. Different from “health,” safety meant the prevention of physical injury by ensuring, for example, that floors were smooth and secure, emergency exits were accessible, and machinery did not pose a threat to limbs and fingers.

What does this have to do with chemicals and pesticides? Historically, nothing. The entire Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 uses the word safety eleven times, but only in the phrases “Occupational Health and Safety Administration” and “health and safety studies” (which EPA can not require to be conducted). TSCA instead fixates on assessing and managing an “unreasonable risk of injury” from chemicals, a phrase with layers of cost-benefit analysis and complicated risk assessment imbedded within it. As enacted in 1972, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) uses the word safety once, stating that data on the safety of a pesticide to “fish and wildlife, humans and other mammals, plants, animals, and soil” must be available to the public. It also encourages the “safe storage and disposal” of pesticides.  The 1988 FIFRA amendments use safety only two more times, in reference to “pesticide safety education programs.” It is not until the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (which amends FIFRA and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act) that EPA was required to evaluate tolerance levels for pesticide residues on food by their safety, defined as a “reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue.”

Now, the American public clearly expects all chemicals to be safe, where safety is understood to be protection from a wide range of adverse environmental and especially human health effects. But within the band of interest groups pushing for chemicals reform, safety can take on very specific meanings. The American Chemistry Council’s principles for modernizing TSCA state that “chemicals should be safe for their intended use.” The Safer Chemical Healthy Families coalition is advocating for a safety standard that includes a comprehensive array of potential health hazards and requires protection of the most vulnerable subpopulations. The House and Senate draft proposals for TSCA reform would both require that chemicals in commerce meet a “safety standard” such that there is a “negligible risk of any adverse effect on the general population or a vulnerable population.”

Without waiting for a reformed TSCA, by giving itself a new name OPPTS is trying to definitively affirm its purpose, and is reclaiming the word “safety” in order to do so. The new name realigns default assumptions about the nature of chemicals (that they are not all “toxic substances”, but that they are also not necessarily inherently safe) and the purpose of office.  Further, the name can focus the office and its efforts on an idea founded in a positive ambition, rather than negative prevention.

The first Earth Day occurred in the midst of what many perceived as imminent threats: nuclear war, polluted water ways, smog-laden air, and a stream of pesticide and chemical crises. Earth Day was not about apportioning blame or paralysis, but celebrating new possibilities and our shared responsibilities to make this world better (and safer) from human actions run amok. By undergoing this name change on Earth Day, EPA seems to be trying to recapture this spirit of working towards something better. 

Posted In: Policy

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