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April 3, 2003

PFCs: Global Contaminants: Regulatory gaps lead to global PFC pollution

April 2003

Although most people assume that chemicals in consumer products are thoroughly tested before they are sold, there is no legal requirement to test most chemicals for health effects at any stage of production, marketing, and use. Because of this, basic toxicology studies on Teflon, Scotchgard and related chemicals are being conducted only now, fifty years after these chemicals went on the market.

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, chemical companies can continue making chemicals and putting new compounds on the market without conducting any studies of their effects on people or the environment. Some companies conduct rudimentary screening studies prior to production, but fewer than half of all applications to the EPA for new chemical production include any toxicity data at all. The government approves 80 percent of these applications with no restrictions, usually in less than three weeks. When data are provided, they are typically cursory in nature, because the government lacks authority to request anything more than that. Eight of 10 new chemicals win approval in less than three weeks, at an average rate of seven a day. If there are no data, the government justifies approval with results of computer models that estimate if a chemical will harm human health or the environment (EPA 1997a, GAO 1994).

Chemicals are stuided after the damage is done

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For chemicals that are already on the market, the EPA can request data only when it can substantiate that the chemical is causing harm, which it generally cannot do without the toxicity data it is seeking to request. In practice, this means that studies are required only after independent scientists have accumulated a body of evidence demonstrating potential harm, a process that typically takes decades.

In general, the more recently a chemical has been introduced into commerce, the less scientists understand its toxicity, and the less likely it is that scientists will know how to test for it in people and the environment. The few chemicals or chemical families that have been well-studied are those for which scientists uncovered, often accidentally, environmental catastrophes that can include widespread pollution of the environment or human population, as is the case now for PFCs.

Part 9: Sidebars

Sidebar 1: Reform of Federal Law

Sidebar 2: The regulatory precedent of pesticides