Saturday, May 29, 2010

Environmental Groups Urge Congress to Reinstate Congress' Science Office

Believe it or not, Congress once had a science office. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), from 1872 to 1995, provided research and reports to Congress on a variety of important science issues. Targeted first during the Reagan years, the OTA was unceremoniously defunded during the Gingrich "Contract with America" era. But a coalition of 90 environmental and health advocacy groups want it back.

The coalition, which includes such diverse members as Friends of the Earth, OMB Watch and Republicans for Environmental Protection, have formally requested that Congress allocate an unspecified amount of funding to reinstate the OTA. Technically, they argue, the OTA wasn't actually abolished, just defunded, and as such would simply need funds appropriated.

Unfortunately, I don't see this happening. While the economy does seem to be (begrudgingly) improving, the current economic conditions of the US remain tentative. And a plausible argument could be made that the functions of the OTA are being met by the General Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress, and the National Academy of Science.

Another option could be a proposal by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars called "Reinventing Technology Assessment." It emphasized "citizen engagement" and suggested that a "nationwide network of non-partisan policy research organizations, universities and science museums" could be created, which they called the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology (ECAST) network.

Either way, Congress clearly needs to rely on actual science when making decisions.

Friday, May 28, 2010

European Chemicals Director - Don't Forget the CLP Deadline for REACH!

The first REACH registration deadline is coming (November 30, 2010), and everyone is working hard to prepare registration dossiers, communicate with SIEFs, and get their documents in on time. But European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) Executive Director Geert Dancet reminded people attending a REACH conference in Helsinki - "Don't Forget the CLP."

CLP is, of course, the new Classification, Labeling and Packaging regulation in Europe. It implements the European version of the Globally Harmonized System of classification and labeling. And the deadline for notification for the CLP is January 3, 2011, just about a month after the first REACH registration deadline.

Companies that are registering in November will most likely be including the CLP notification as part of their registration package. But registrations are due only for those chemicals produced in amounts greater than 1000 tons per year and/or are considered substances of very high concern (SVHCs). Companies who produce or import smaller tonnages won't have to register their chemicals until 2013 or even 2018.

But the CLP notifications are due by January for all chemicals. And while ECHA anticipates anywhere from 25,000 to 75,000 registrations this year, they expect to see about 2 million notifications relating to the CLP. Each one of those CLP notifications requires companies to say whether their chemicals would be classified as dangerous according to dozens of different measures, including physical-chemical properties, whether they are CMRs (carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins), PBTs (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic), or toxic to aquatic organisms.

Of the 2 million notifications expected by the beginning of the year, so far ECHA has received only 1,000.

Clearly companies have a lot of work still to do!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

EPA Will Start Reviewing Confidentiality Claims for TSCA Chemicals

The USEPA has announced in a Federal Register notice that it initiate "a general practice of reviewing confidentiality claims for chemical identities in health and safety studies, and in data from health and safety studies, submitted under TSCA."

The policy will become effective August 25, 2010 and will include both newly submitted claims and existing claims. The policy takes advantage of Section 14(b) of TSCA, in which the data in health and safety studies is not supposed to be held confidential. If EPA decides to make these studies public they would still "not disclose processes used in the manufacturing or processing of a chemical substance or mixture or, in the case of a mixture, the release of data disclosing the portion of the mixture comprised by any of the chemical substances in the mixture." The problem is that sometimes the chemical identity has contained confidential process information. But where a chemical identity does not explicitly contain process information or reveal portions of a mixture, "EPA expects to find that the information would clearly not be entitled to confidential treatment."

This is yet another step EPA is taking to improve the transparency of chemical information. Earlier EPA determined that some information previously held confidential would no longer be, and they also put the public portion of the TSCA Inventory on the internet for free availability for all (previously you had to purchase access through private vendors).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

If Corexit is so bad, why is BP using it as a dispersant in the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf

Okay, I suppose "spill" isn't the right word, given that the well head continues to gush oil. Maybe leak. I've heard some say "volcano." In any case, they first have to stop the oil from flowing. But while crews are working on what I think is now Plan F or G (or perhaps U or V), other crews are dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant into the Gulf. Word is that they will reach a million gallons shortly, with much of it being sprayed on the surface and at least 100,000 gallons injected a mile deep underwater at the well head.

But the EPA and NGOs are concerned that the dispersant of choice, Corexit, is both less effective and more toxic to aquatic life than alternatives. So why choose that one instead of something else?

In large part it is because they have lots of it on hand. And they don't have lots of whatever might be used to replace it. Even White House energy advisor, and former EPA Administrator, Carol Browner has acknowledged that "there are not as many being manufactured as people thought in the quantities" needed.

Which raises two questions. First, shouldn't this remind us that there are significant dangers to an oil-based economy, both economically and environmentally (not to mention from a national security standpoint)? And second, shouldn't companies and agencies ensure that they have on hand adequate supplies of emergency response gear and chemicals? As oil exploration goes into deeper and deeper waters the risks of catastrophic failures such as the Deepwater Horizon are likely to become more frequent.

And the dispersants don't actually get rid of the oil, just disperse it. Which means make it into smaller droplets that in theory can either degrade quicker or dilute out in a wider area. Unfortunately, these droplets actually make the oil more bioavailable to aquatic organisms. Not to mention the impact on the fishing, shellfishing, beaching, and tourist industries of the Gulf region, in particular Louisiana.

And did I mention that hurricane season is just beginning?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Green chemistry gains another proponent in California

Green chemistry has been a hot topic in the last few years, with California, the EPA, the EU, and others pushing to encourage safer, more health and environmentally friendly, and sustainable chemicals. Toward this end, last week saw the formal opening of the Green Products Innovation Institute (GPII) in San Francisco, a non-profit organization founded to promote the cradle-to-cradle (C2C) concept.

The idea of C2C was first developed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. The process looks at the entire life cycle of a product, from its initial extraction from virgin ore to its disposal, or actually, to its reuse or recycling. From their web site,

The Green Products Innovation Institute (GPII) is a non-profit organization created to bring about a large scale transformation in the way we make the things we make.

Rather than focusing on how industry can become "less bad," the GPII is set up to be a resource for those who aspire to do "more good". We promote an innovation-oriented model for eliminating toxic chemicals and other negative environmental impacts. The GPII prescribes a set of design principles, based on the laws of nature, to help businesses create products that are safe for people and the environment. This rethinking of how we design, manufacture, use and reuse materials will spur a new era of innovation, simultaneously driving economic, ecological and social prosperity.

GPII plans to work with academia, NGOs, government, and industry to establish a product rating system. Products meeting the criteria will receive a C2C certification mark.

While the founders hope to expand internationally, locating the headquarters in California is no accident as the state has been working to implement a green chemistry philosophy. Indeed, Governor Schwarzenegger attended the opening and reiterated GPII's mantra that the "time is now for us to go beyond simply being 'less bad' and to lead the world in the invention and innovation of 'more good,' which he sees as a way to a "prosperous Cradle-to-Cradle economy."

Initially, funding of GPII is from private donations from organizations and individuals, but once established they expect to be funded through training and product registration fees.