Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Beginning of the (long overdue) end for federal toxics program?

What happened this week in San Francisco was nothing less than historic.

Lisa Jackson, EPA’s chief and the president’s point-person on environmental policy, began something that should have happened 33 years ago: drive a stake into the heart of the horrendous federal chemicals regulatory program that has left an entire population polluted, beginning in the womb.

EPA plans to modernize the nation’s chemicals policy

Jackson laid out EPA’s plan to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) with more rigorous testing and safety standards and greater EPA authority to protect the public from the dangers of toxic chemical exposure.  The Obama administration’s “principles” for reform are:

  • Chemicals should be reviewed against risk-based safety standards based on sound science and protective of human health and the environment.
  • Manufacturers should provide EPA with the necessary information to conclude that new and existing chemicals are safe and do not endanger public health or the environment.
  • EPA should have clear authority to take risk management actions when chemicals do not meet the safety standard, with flexibility to take into account sensitive subpopulations, costs, social benefits, equity and other relevant considerations.
  • Manufacturers and EPA should assess and act on priority chemicals, both existing and new, in a timely manner.
  • Green Chemistry should be encouraged and provisions assuring Transparency and Public Access to Information should be strengthened.
  • EPA should be given a sustained source of funding for implementation.

The importance of bio-moniotoring

During a conference call this week with environmental and public health groups and industry representatives, Jackson spent considerable time discussing the importance of bio-monitoring as an effective tool to identify which chemicals should be reviewed first, since some are substantially more toxic to human health than others.

Later in the day, in a speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Jackson cited an EWG study conducted in 2005 that found hundreds of industrial chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies born in the United States. She noted:

A 2005 study found 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies – chemicals from pesticides, fast food packaging, coal and gasoline emissions, and trash incineration.

The Administration’s new “principles” embrace positions long advocated by environmentalists, including EWG, federal and state lawmakers who back TSCA reform, and for the first time ever, the chemical industry, which has laid out its own principles for modernizing TSCA.  Cal Dooley, President and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, said:

The chemical industry is committed to the safety of our products. Any effort to modernize our nation’s chemical management system must start with consumer safety as its highest priority.  Current law is more than 30-years old and the law must be updated to keep pace with science.

EPA calls for a changing burden of proof

Perhaps the most important element in the new Obama/Jackson vision for a modern chemical review process is the call to reverse the law’s assumption that a chemical is safe for human and environmental exposure unless proven otherwise.  Currently, the burden of proof falls on EPA to show that a chemical is unsafe, and it can do so only after the chemical has been introduced into use.

As a result, it has been been virtually impossible for the agency to ban or even restrict the use of any chemical. Even asbestos, the deadly material that causes serious disease in roughly 10,000 Americans every year, has escaped federal regulation.  Administrator Jackson described it well:

As with existing chemicals, the burden of proof falls on EPA. Manufacturers aren’t required to show that sufficient data exist to fully assess a chemical’s risks. If EPA has adequate data and wants to protect the public against known risks, the law creates obstacles to quick and effective action.

Since 1976, EPA has issued regulations to control only five existing chemicals determined to present an unreasonable risk. Five from a total universe of almost 80,000 existing chemicals.  In 1989, after years of study, EPA issued rules phasing out most uses of asbestos, an exhaustively studied substance that has taken an enormous toll on the health of Americans.  Yet, a court overturned EPA’s rules because it had failed to clear the many hurdles for action under TSCA.

The beginning of a new era

Jackson’s announcement signals the beginning of new era of toxics policy in America and will continue to build momentum for Congressional efforts to reform the federal toxics program.  For the past three Congresses, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Congressman Henry Waxman (D- CA, 30th) have been the champions of toxics reform with their legislation, “The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act.”  Congressman Bobby L. Rush (D- IL, 1st) is expected to lead the efforts on toxics reform in the House in this Congress.

What a difference new leadership at EPA has made. In April, 2008, a top EPA official testified on toxics reform before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  This is what Jim Gulliford, then-Assistant EPA Administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, had to say:

Overall, I believe that TSCA provides broad authority for the Agency to adequately control new and existing chemicals and to address emerging chemical issues as they arise.

I believe that TSCA provides EPA with the statutory tools necessary to protect public health and environment.

Next week, as the effort to reform and modernize federal regulation of toxic chemicals gets underway, environmentalists, public health advocates, chemical industry leaders and Lisa Jackson will convene an historic conference to discuss what a new federal chemicals policy should look like.  It should be a lively, frank debate and one I’m looking forward to.

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