Is it possible that Congress would pass a bill allowing new chemicals on the market that might be even less safe than the ones we have now, to be used in products we buy and use everyday – even in children’s products?
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the newly released House discussion draft of a chemicals regulation reform bill would do.
It would be like strictly monitoring your older son’s TV watching while letting his kid sister take in an R-rated feature at the theatre.
This approach – setting strict safety standards for new chemicals only when they can be “reasonably anticipated” to injure people – is what’s laid out in the House draft. Only older chemicals would be assessed against a strict, health-based, G-rated safety standard.
That’s a far cry from real reform.
Here’s how it would work. EPA would assess chemicals currently on the market and flunk those that didn’t meet the law’s safety standard, which requires a “reasonable certainty of no harm, including to vulnerable populations” and “protect[ing] the public welfare from adverse effects, including effects to the environment.”
This is same standard as in the law that regulates pesticides in food, the Food Quality Protection Act. In practice, it has meant that a pesticide is allowed on the market only if EPA finds that it meets a strict risk-based standard, considered the gold standard when it comes to health limits in federal law.
Under the House’s proposed chemicals regulation reform, all existing chemicals would eventually be held to this standard — and taken off the market if they didn’t meet it.
But for new chemicals, there would be no such protective limit. Instead, we’d get the R-rated standard.
Let’s say a chemical company invents a new chemical to replace one that failed to meet the safety standard. Under the House proposal, a company could give EPA 90 days advance notice that it intended to replace the failed chemical with a new one. It would have to provide any information it had on the chemical’s safety and how it would be used. EPA would then have to decide whether the chemical is not “reasonably anticipated to present a risk of injury to health or the environment.”
If EPA decided it didn’t anticipate any injury – based on what might be a skimpy set of data– the new chemical would get a green light. The manufacturer could immediately use it in children’s teething rings, baby bibs, textbook covers or for any other use it had proposed. All this could happen without a rigorous assessment of the new compound against the well-established, health-based limit the agency would be using, on the other side of the hall, in assessing older chemicals.
This double standard, like the current law, also creates a disincentive for companies to adequately test their new chemicals for safety, because more testing would increase the likelihood of finding a hazard that could be “reasonably anticipated” to cause harm.
How much does this matter? At its current pace, the chemical industry replaces 50 percent of all its most widely used chemicals every generation. New chemicals come on the market at a pace of about two per day. And old and new chemicals are put to new uses all the time — at some unknown but likely enormous rate.
In recent years, we’ve learned from cord blood and other biomonitoring studies that mixtures of chemicals are entering people’s bodies constantly, even before birth. A growing number of these compounds have been linked to asthma, neurological problems, cancer and other diseases. Estimates of the costs of dealing with the disease burden stemming from these exposures now run to the tens of billions of dollars annually, at a minimum.
Under the current House draft, we’d be moving backward. Over time, as old chemicals were assessed and new ones flooded the market, Environmental Working Group would have to tell consumers: We know the old stuff is safe; it’s the new stuff that you should avoid.
This is not the reform we’ve all envisioned and worked hard to achieve. It’s a retrograde approach that could leave us with riskier chemicals than we have on the market now.
It also means that new chemicals will automatically be in the bull’s-eye – for consumers to avoid, for advocates and researchers to target. The House proposals buys into the notion that industry should be able to invent and innovate in the same old way it’s been doing it under the failed Toxic Substances Control Act that we’re trying to fix.
Industry likes to say that “we should be able to get our chemicals on the market right away.” What they need to get on the market right away are safe chemicals that meet a strict, health-based standard. Under the House proposal, a new chemical wouldn’t be a new, safe chemical. It would just be new.
The House draft is missing an historic opportunity to incorporate safety into the very notion of innovation.