Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

New Chemicals:
Getting the Right Data, and Getting the Data Right

Under the new legislation pending in Congress to reform the nation’s ineffectual chemicals regulation law, it would be easy to paralyze the Environmental Protection Agency under mountains of data — if it’s not done right.

The discussion draft circulated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is currently being dissected and debated by industry, environmental and consumer groups, would require EPA to assess 300 existing “priority” chemicals every two years, evaluating them against a strict, health-based safety standard [section 6(b)].

Unfortunately, there’s a possibility that the standard applied to new chemicals and new chemical uses, at least as the draft is currently written, could be interpreted in a way that would make it nowhere near as strict. That needs to be fixed, or we could quickly face a situation where unsafe older chemicals are being taken off the market, only to be replaced by new compounds that may be much less safe. And we’d never know it.

All it would take to avoid this unacceptable outcome is a one-word change in the bill’s language to make it clear that the EPA administrator must evaluate new chemicals, as is the case for existing chemicals, against the health-based standard in section 6(b) of the House draft.

Some may fear that imposing such a standard for new chemicals could potentially overwhelm EPA by requiring an unmanageable number of assessments every year. But there’s a perfectly good way to avoid this. That can be done by giving the agency a framework and the authority to streamline its assessments of new chemicals and new uses based on key indicators of exposure, hazard and risks to health and the environment.

EWG would support a system that allows for “minimum data sets” and safety determinations for new chemicals and new uses that are tiered, or ranked, based on criteria similar to the proposed system for deciding which existing chemicals should get priority for safety assessments.

The basic idea is that a new chemical intended for the interior of jet engines that would probably never pollute ordinary consumers would require a less rigorous assessment to show that there is reasonable certainty that the chemical would cause no harm.  A chemical that would go into toddlers’ toys would require a more rigorous assessment, but they both would meet the same standard of safety.

The criteria  for tiering new chemicals could include (among others):

  • Would the chemical be expected to pollute the human body over time, migrating out of products or escaping into the environment?
  • Would the chemical be used in products for children, or in products used by pregnant women or others who are most vulnerable?
  • Is the chemical likely to have hazardous properties that have raised concerns in the past, including persistence, bioaccumulation, developmental toxicity, mutagenicity and carcinogenicity.
  • Would the chemical be produced in large volumes?

Both the minimum data sets and the depth of safety determinations for new chemicals and new uses can be tiered to reflect the level of concern they trigger.

For new chemicals that raise higher levels of concern, it will be critical to have a robust minimum data set plus any additional test the EPA Administrator deems necessary. This is key, because unlike existing chemicals, brand new chemicals will initially have no toxicity data available.

And all new chemicals must be accompanied by data that is adequate for EPA to decide on priorities, determine whether additional tests are needed and make a sound determination against a strict, health-based safety standard [as specified in Section 6(b) of the draft] to ensure protection of health and the environment. These applications must include data on projected production volumes and all intended uses. Without that, EPA will have no way to decide whether the chemical is safe enough to go on the market.

Anything short of this would be nothing less than the missed opportunity of a lifetime for protecting children and others most vulnerable to chemical harm.

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