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GAO Calls Reform of Federal Toxics Policy a ‘Top Priority’

For Immediate Release: 
Friday, January 23, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. –- In its 2009 ‘High Risk’ priority list released yesterday, the General Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a blistering indictment of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Bush-era lapses from its mandate to protect the public from toxic chemicals. The non-partisan investigative arm of Congress has called for fundamental reform of EPA’s 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), widely regarded as the weakest of all major environmental laws.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lacks adequate scientific information on the toxicity of many chemicals that may be found in the environment—as well as on tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially in the United States,” the GAO said. “EPA’s inadequate progress in assessing toxic chemicals significantly limits the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

Transforming and upgrading EPA’s ability to assess and control toxic chemicals is one of GAO’s top priorities for the Obama administration. The GAO also called for overhauling the nation’s financial regulatory system, whose inattention helped trigger the global financial crisis, and improving the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ability to protect the public from unsafe or ineffective drugs and other medical products.

“The Bush administration never met an industry lobby it didn’t like, so it’s no surprise that it left the federal toxics controls program in shambles,” said Environmental Working Group (EWG) Executive Director Richard Wiles. “Toxic chemicals linked to serious health problems have cascaded onto the marketplace and into consumer products for more three decades. Our bodies, even our children’s bodies, have been polluted by hundreds of industrial chemicals whose long-term damage to human health is only beginning to be understood.”

The Environmental Working Group and other organizations committed to stopping the onslaught of environmental diseases and conditions are backing a major reform of TSCA known as the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, to require that chemicals be proved safe for children and other vulnerable groups before they can be put on the market.

Kid-Safe, to be re-introduced in coming weeks in both the House and Senate would require chemical manufacturers to provide test data showing that their products are safe for children and others who are most vulnerable. The requirements would encompass all chemicals in commercial use from among the 62,000 compounds grandfathered in by the 1976 TSCA law and the 20,000 which have since been allowed into U.S. commerce, also with little or no data to support their safety.

The 1976 act denied EPA the authority to demand the information essential to evaluating a chemical’s risk or to take action to protect the public health. For that reason, in 32 years of enforcing TSCA, EPA has evaluated the safety of just 200 chemicals on the market, and banned or regulated only 5. EPA tried but failed to ban asbestos under TSCA, which is responsible for 10,000 cancer deaths every year.

Kid-Safe, whose provisions closely mirror GAO’s recommendations, would require chemical companies to bear the expense of proving their products are safe for human health and the environment. Under current law, EPA must pay for the expensive, time-consuming research necessary to prove a substance dangerous.

Research by EWG has found that Americans carry body burdens of hundreds of industrial chemicals. Testing by EWG has found an average of 200 industrial chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies born in the U.S. The implications of exposure to these chemicals are not fully understood because research has been constrained by limited federal and academic research budgets. Even so, scientists have developed ominous findings about the serious impacts of exposure to even traces of ubiquitous industrial chemicals, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), a synthetic sex hormone and plastics component, and perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient that can disrupt brain development.

“Our society is at a tipping point,” added Wiles. “Every day, we find out something more about links between chemicals and serious diseases and conditions, including childhood brain cancer, autism, learning deficits, infertility, reproductive disorders and birth defects. But our government has almost no authority to protect people from even the most hazardous chemicals on the market. The GAO has delivered a strong message that this has to change.”


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.