Attorney General James Takes Action to Correct “Fatally-Flawed” Toxic Chemical Risk Evaluation

Former Administration Dismissed Dangers of 1,4-Dioxane, Poisonous Chemical
Detected in Long Island’s Drinking Water Supply and Consumer Products

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James, leading a coalition of 15 attorneys general and the City of New York, today took legal action to support the Biden Administration’s remedy of numerous deficiencies in the risk evaluation for the widely-prevalent, highly-toxic chemical 1,4-dioxane. The risk evaluation — which was one of numerous “midnight” anti-environmental actions taken by the former administration in its waning days — minimizes or dismisses 1,4-dioxane’s dangers to workers, residents of low-income communities, communities of color, and the general public. As such, the evaluation attempts to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from implementing regulatory measures to eliminate substantial health risks posed by 1,4-dioxane.  

The coalition’s action seeks to support the Biden Administration’s anticipated efforts to correct the many deficiencies in the 1,4-dioxane risk evaluation. The procedures used for chemical risk evaluations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) were identified as potentially contrary to President Joseph Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis (Executive Order No. 13990), and thereby, subject to revision, rescission, or suspension.

“1,4-dioxane is both poisonous and pervasive — all too often contaminating the water we drink, the places we work, and products we use, and Long Islanders are particularly vulnerable in the state of New York,” said Attorney General James. “However, rather than fully and accurately assessing 1,4-dioxane’s risks, the former administration ignored the science and the law in an effort to block necessary action to address this chemical’s many, serious dangers. We are taking this action today to support the Biden Administration in correcting this fatally-flawed evaluation and to protect our communities.”   

Exposure to 1,4-dioxane poses serious harms to human health, including nervous system effects; liver, kidney, and lung degeneration; and death. The EPA classifies 1,4-dioxane as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” 1,4-dioxane is widely used, among other things, as a solvent in a variety of commercial and industrial applications. The chemical is also present as a byproduct from the breakdown of other chemicals in a variety of consumer products, including detergents, household cleaners, and personal care products. 1,4-dioxane can be released into the air, water, and soil at places where it is produced or used. As an example of public exposure to this toxic chemical, the New York Public Interest Research Group has reported that at least 12 million New Yorkers drink water with some level of 1,4-dioxane contamination. In particular, 1,4-dioxane has been detected in Long Island’s groundwater, which is the sole source of drinking water for almost 3 million state residents. 

Because of its potential for substantial harm to public health and the environment, the EPA selected 1,4-dioxane as one of the initial 10 chemical substances subject to its initial risk evaluations, required under the TSCA amendments of 2016. That law requires the EPA to perform comprehensive evaluations of the risks associated with the “full range of exposures” people have to the chemical. The coalition argues that the EPA’s 1,4-dioxane risk evaluation excludes many significant exposure pathways through which people are exposed to the toxic chemical — such as drinking contaminated water, breathing contaminated air, or exposure through contaminated soil. In fact, the EPA’s risk evaluation under the former administration found no “unreasonable risk” to the general public from 1,4-dioxane’s uses, even though the exposure to the general public examined by the agency was limited to recreational swimming and did not include all the other, more important, ways — including drinking contaminated water — that 1,4-dioxane may harm people’s health. 

The coalition also argues that, in violating the TSCA and EPA regulations, the EPA’s final risk evaluation failed to assess 1,4-dioxane’s exposure risks to “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations” — such as infants, children, pregnant women, workers, or the elderly — who may be at greater risk than the general public. Further, the EPA’s evaluation underestimated 1,4-dioxane’s risk to workers in commercial and industrial settings based on the unfounded assumption that workers will use personal protective equipment, and that this equipment will protect against 1,4-dioxane exposure. The attorneys general contend that the EPA understated the chemical’s risks to workers through these unsupported assumptions.  

Before finalizing the 1,4-dioxane risk evaluation, the EPA expanded the scope to cover several additional consumer uses, including surface cleaners and laundry/dishwashing detergents. The coalition notes that the EPA expanded this scope in line with the urgings of industry trade groups which seek to block related state-level policies. Among other policies, these groups targeted New York state’s enactment of limits on 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct in household cleansing products and ingredient disclosure mandates for cleaning products. The EPA’s subsequent final risk evaluation for 1,4-dioxane found no unreasonable risk to consumers from the chemical in these products.

Joining Attorney General James in filing the petition are the attorneys general of Hawai‘i, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia, as well as the City of New York.

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorney Generals Andrew G. Frank, Sarah K. Kam, and Gavin G McCabe; Policy Advisor Peter C. Washburn; and Chief Scientist Jodi Feld — all under the supervision of Environmental Protection Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic. The Environmental Protection Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.

According to the New York University School of Law’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, since 2017, the Office of the New York Attorney General (OAG) has been a leader in taking legal actions against federal agencies on issues related to the environment. In recent years, the OAG has, to-date, taken over 240 significant regulatory and legal actions — and over 70 actions in 2020 alone — in opposition to the former administration’s concerted, across-the-board drive to undermine many of our nation’s bedrock health, safety, and environmental laws.