The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been undergoing an effort to streamline its safety review process for new chemicals, NBC News reported recently. But some former EPA officials and industry advocates are worried the changes will harm the public.

The most notable change is that the EPA will no longer require manufacturers to sign legal agreements that would restrict the use of new chemicals under certain conditions.

These "consent orders" will still be necessary if EPA officials believe a manufacturer's intended way to use the chemical poses a hazard for public health and the environment. But the orders will no longer be necessary when the chemical product is used beyond its intended purpose, but in a way that could be "reasonably foreseen" as a use in the future.

"A broader regulation known as significant new-use rules will be used for chemicals likely to pose a risk if they are used for a different purpose than intended," said Jeff Morris, the director of the EPA's toxics program, adding that dropping consent orders in these cases would improve efficiency.

Some public health experts and former EPA officials say these new-use rules do not require testing, but could be recommended if a manufacturer wants to use a chemical that has been restricted. However, chemical industry groups say the EPA is still placing stricter regulations on the use of chemicals and expanding the scope of reviews.

This news comes shortly after the EPA announced in December that it would indefinitely postpone bans on the use of three toxic chemicals found in consumer products, in an effort to curb "unnecessary regulatory burdens." The proposed bans targeted methylene chloride and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP), ingredients in paint strippers; and trichloroethylene (TCE), used as a spot cleaner in dry-cleaning and as a degreasing agent.

Under an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 2017, the EPA is reviewing the risks of 10 chemicals, including other uses of the three listed above. The updated law is known as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, named after the late New Jersey senator who had long championed an overhaul of the loophole-ridden toxic substances law.

“The revised law had strong bipartisan support," The New York Times wrote. "The Senate passed the measure on a voice vote; the House approved it 403 to 12. The intention was to give the EPA the authority necessary to require new testing and regulation of thousands of chemicals used in everyday products, from laundry detergents to hardware supplies."

Additionally, the law requires the EPA to examine about 20 chemicals at a time for no longer than seven years per chemical, but it allows for faster action on high-risk uses of methylene chloride, NMP and TCE.

The NBC report says some former EPA officials, experts and advocates think the EPA is "skipping vital steps that protect the public from hazardous chemicals that consumers have never used before, undermining new laws and regulations that Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2016."

This could mean that manufacturers receive approval to introduce a new chemical for one purpose without the need for a thorough review of the chemical's safety if it is later used for a different purpose, they say. Experts cite asbestos as an example that was once used for building insulation but is still found in brake pads for automobiles and is used to manufacture chlorine.

Bob Sussman, a former EPA attorney during the Obama administration, disagrees with the EPA changes, telling NBC News that the "EPA is explicitly disavowing and downplaying a tool that's really been a cornerstone of new chemical regulation. We believe the EPA is taking a big step backward in the protection of health and the environment without an offsetting benefit."

Some consumer advocates agree with Sussman, saying that the EPA's moves are "sabotaging a safety review process that Congress had taken great pains to bolster." For example, Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, told NBC that the 2016 law requires the EPA to assess the broad use of chemicals because manufacturers frequently find different uses for hazardous substances over time, as in the use of asbestos.

When President Donald Trump took office, the EPA was facing a backlog of new chemicals awaiting safety reviews, with about 600 cases piling up after Congress approved reforms to Lautenberg Act, passed in June 2016. For the first time, the EPA was required to make a determination that a new chemical was safe before it could be sold to consumers, using stricter criteria to evaluate their health and environmental risks. The new law also required the EPA to evaluate the risks of chemicals already in commercial use, by specific deadlines.

The Trump administration says that its safety reviews will be just as robust under its changes to the program. If a manufacturer wants to use a chemical for a new purpose that might be risky, it's still legally required to seek the EPA's approval if there are significant new-use restrictions in place. The EPA can then mandate more testing at that point.

"The end result is that there would be the same amount of testing," Morris said.

Under Obama, the EPA didn't have to sign off on new chemicals if it concluded that they were likely to be safe. If the manufacturer heard nothing from the agency within 90 days, it could go ahead and start making its new product. Under the new law, the EPA has to make an affirmative decision that a new chemical is safe before it can be commercialized.