Congress Considers New Chemical Safety Reform Bill

Current policy, unchanged since 1976, has allowed the EPA to require testing for a mere 200 of the 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the U.S. Photo: Flickr/Horia Varlan

Under current policy, the U.S. EPA can only call for chemical safety testing after evidence surfaces indicating a chemical is dangerous. But a proposed chemical safety reform bill could change that.

New legislation to overhaul the current “Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976” (TCSA) was introduced to Congress last week in an attempt to strengthen safety and testing requirements related to toxic chemicals.

The “Safe Chemicals Act of 2010” was announced by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health, after months of hearings with business leaders, public officials, scientists, doctors, academics and nonprofit organizations.

If passed, the new legislation would require safety testing of all industrial chemicals, putting the burden on industry to prove the chemicals are safe in order to stay on the market.

Current policy, unchanged since 1976, has allowed the EPA to require testing for a mere 200 of the 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the U.S. and has led to the banning of only five dangerous chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins.

“America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken,” said Senator Lautenberg. ” […] EPA does not have the tools to act on dangerous chemicals, and the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws so that their customers are assured their products are safe.”

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health estimate that 42 billion pounds of chemicals enter American commerce daily, representing enough chemicals to fill up 623,000 tanker trucks each day. That’s enough tanker trucks to reach from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back again, if placed end-to-end.

One of the greatest criticisms with the TCSA is that it exempted all chemicals already on the market at the time from review. A list of all chemicals already on the market was made in December of 1979 and called the TCSA Inventory. Nearly 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered in, giving manufacturers little reason to develop less toxic and more environmentally friendly alternatives. In essence, the old chemicals were easier to keep producing than new ones.

Highlights of the “Safe Chemicals Act of 2010” include the prioritizing of chemicals based on risk, the requirement of manufacturer’s to provide the EPA with a minimum data set for each produced chemical, a shift in the placement of burden of proof on the chemical manufacturer to prove chemical safety, the creation of a grant program to foster the development of safe chemical alternatives and the creation of a public database to catalog chemical information.

However, some environmentalists are concerned with a possible loophole in the proposed legislation related to new chemicals and their lack of testing based on a low likelihood to pose a health risk.

This January, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that addressing the safety of chemicals is one of the EPA’s five key priorities.

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  1. Making industrial chemicals safer is something we can all get behind. However, if we want safer chemicals and a safer environment then we must use nonanimal methods of testing.

    Currently, many toxicity tests are based on experiments in animals and use methods that were developed as long ago as the 1930’s; they and are slow, inaccurate, open to uncertainty and manipulation, and do not adequately protect human health. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. More importantly, the current testing paradigm has a poor record in predicting effects in humans and an even poorer record in leading to actual regulation of dangerous chemicals.

    The blueprint for the development and implementation of nonanimal testing is the National Academy of Sciences report, “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy in 2007.” This report calls for a shift away from the use of animals in toxicity testing. The report also concludes that human cell- and computer-based approaches are the best way to protect human health because they allow us to understand more quickly and accurately the varied effects that chemicals can have on different groups of people. They are also more affordable and more humane.

    These methods are ideal for assessing the real world scenarios such as mixtures of chemicals, which have proven problematic using animal-based test methods. And, they’re the only way we can assess all chemicals on the market.

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