Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Save the Best for Last
or, Do the Worst First

Ever keep putting off the worst things on your to-do list? Like dusting before tackling the bathrooms, delaying calling the dentist to set up your next appointment, puttering around in the garden before balancing your checkbook as your kids jump on the trampoline — before making their beds?

Under the House’s discussion draft for chemical policy reform, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) won’t have that luxury. The draft puts the worst first. Details aside, that’s the best approach we can imagine for determining how EPA should approach the task of assessing industrial chemicals that might threaten human health.

Under current law, chemical substances are not first or last or even on a list at all. That’s because the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which the proposed legislation would replace, does not require EPA to assess the safety of 62,000 chemicals that were “grandfathered in” when the law was passed. They were presumed to be safe as used — no matter how they were used.

The House draft would make a major change in the law by requiring EPA to create, and publish, its to-do list. Within 18 months of the bill’s passage, the agency would develop a list of 300 chemicals that would be first in line to be assessed for safety, before any of the other tens of thousands of chemicals registered for use in the United States.

EPA could ban or restrict these 300 chemicals within two years if it decided that was needed to meet the bill’s strict, health-based standard for chemical safety. The agency might yank a chemical from children’s toys but allow it to remain in ballpoint pens, for instance — whatever EPA determined was necessary to ensure a reasonable certainty of no harm to people and the environment. As EPA crossed off its list the chemicals with completed safety assessments, it would add the worst of the rest, keeping at least 300 priority chemicals on the to-do list at all times.

So what should go on this never-ending to-do list? Section 6 of the House draft tells EPA to choose chemicals “based on available scientific evidence, consideration of their risk relative to other chemical substances and mixtures, presence in biological and environmental media, use, production volume, toxicity, persistence, bioaccumulation, or other properties indicating risk.”

That’s a strong collection of factors that can lead to health problems in the real world. But what’s missing are factors that indicate clear exposure for people. At EWG, we think chemicals that pollute the human body should be on that first list of 300. “Presence in tap water, food and indoor air” should be one of the factors – these chemicals are almost certainly in our bodies as well.

The current draft’s vague language “presence in biological media” would give equal weight to chemicals found in snails, stoats or people. We’d like to see “presence in people” added to the list.

And what about chemicals in umbilical cord blood? It’s our view that industrial chemicals that cross the placenta to contaminate a child before birth should top EPA’s to-do list. Few things translate to greater risk to health.

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