Friday, July 2, 2010

House Chairman Presents "Must Haves" for TSCA Reform

Congressman Bobby Rush chairs the subcommittee that is in charge of developing the TSCA reform legislation in the US House of Representatives. Along with Henry Waxman, chair of the full committee, Rush introduced the House version of the Toxic Substances Safety Act in April. Recently he offered his views on what in his mind "must" be in the final legislation.

* First, revamped legislation must put the responsibility, and liability, for ensuring the safety of chemical substances squarely at the feet of the manufacturers who produce and sell the substances.

* The Federal government must have the ability to effectively monitor, test or otherwise oversee assorted industries through strengthened legislation.

* Legislation should protect populations that are the most vulnerable to ingesting or being exposed to environmental toxins, but are least able to obtain redress from their government.

* The Environmental Protection Agency should have greater oversight authority to allow it to quickly respond to evidence of environmental toxins.

* New chemical compounds should also pass rigorous safety standards before they are introduced to the marketplace.

The House has been holding meetings to hear from a variety of stakeholders on the discussion draft previously circulated. Apparently there has been cooperation across the aisle to come up with a workable bill to which both parties can agree. The hope is that the formal House legislation will be introduced this summer, but with only a handful of actual legislative days left in the term and a busy campaign season coming up, it's unclear if any action will take place in this Congress.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

EPA Testing of BP Oil Spill Dispersants - Nearly Equal Toxicity

The ongoing BP oil spill (though I'm not sure "spill" is the right word for an open tap of oil gushing into the ocean uncontrolled) has stimulated a lot of interest in the toxicity of the chemical dispersant being used. Concerns were that the one BP is using, Corexit, is more toxic and less effective than alternative chemicals. Given that BP has already dumped over 1.6 million gallons of Corexit into the ocean, the question is not insignificant.

EPA initially ordered BP to identify a less toxic brand of dispersant, but BP indicated that "they were unable to find a dispersant that is less toxic than Corexit 9500, the product currently in use." It's unclear how hard BP tried to find an alternative given that they had millions of gallons of Corexit stockpiled and none of any alternative. It's also cheaper. They are also busy trying to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf and thus don't really have the resources at the moment to do a research project. Which, of course, begs the question as to why wasn't this research carried out already so that stockpiles of the most effective yet least toxic chemical dispersant could be ready for the catastrophe that many suggest was inevitable?

Given BP's inability to find an alternative, EPA decided to test a variety of dispersants with the intention of telling BP that they had to switch. But after the first round of toxicity testing, the results seem to show that they are all about the same.

EPA is not yet prepared to tell BP to switch to another brand of oil dispersant for use in response to the ongoing spill in the Gulf of Mexico, after releasing a first round of toxicity testing data that showed all available varieties had roughly similar toxicological properties. EPA did determine that "none of the eight dispersants tested, including the product in use in the Gulf, displayed biologically significant endocrine disrupting activity."

The toxicity of the dispersant is a tradeoff, and all of the chemicals appear to be less toxic than the oil itself. However, one drawback is that the testing is being done only on the individual chemicals; it's unclear whether there would be enhanced, or decreased, toxicity once the dispersant is mixed with the oil. Given that different fractions of the crude oil degrade at different rates (and react with the chemical dispersant differently), there are a lot of uncertainties that remain. EPA will continue to do testing and report their findings on the Response web site.

Meanwhile, problems with the cap have resulted in even more oil gushing into the Gulf and the first hurricane of the season - Alex, now a Category 2 - will pass well below the spill site, though surge effects from it will likely push more oil onshore. Hurricanes also will affect the ongoing activities in the Gulf. And this is expected by hurricane forecasters to be a particularly active season.

Let's hope they're wrong.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Review – Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels

“Doubt is our product” is how a tobacco company executive once described the industry’s attempt to hide the fact that smoking cigarettes caused lung cancer and related diseases. And that is the theme that David Michaels uses throughout his book. He argues rather persuasively that the tactic of denying the science first perfected by the tobacco companies has been used over and over again by other industries. The goal – to protect profits and avoid litigation liability from exposing people to dangerous chemicals and other practices.

The book is replete with case studies and examples, many from his personal experience as an epidemiologist and a former Assistant Secretary of Energy responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers, neighboring communities, and the environment surrounding the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. He talks about problems with lead and children, workplace cancers from beryllium, “popcorn lung” destruction from diacetyl, secondhand smoke, asbestos, chromium, vinyl chloride in plastics, diet drugs fen-phen, Vioxx, and nuclear radiation, among others. In each case the responsible industry delayed action and avoided taking responsibility while the regulators were hamstrung by a combination of insufficient authority, political unwillingness, and nearly always deficient resources.

Throughout the case studies Michaels also discusses some of the tactics and strategies used by industry to keep from being regulated. While he only gives a passing mention of climate change, the tactics he describes in this 2008 book are clearly evident in this new opportunity for delay. I’m familiar with most of the cases he mentions, some quite familiar and others less so, but I learned quite a bit more about the behind the scenes high jinks that frankly I found a bit startling. As the title suggests, the primary tactic is “create doubt,” otherwise known as “highlight the uncertainty.” Science can never be fully certain because there is always another question that can be asked. Industry has exploited this by emphasizing any uncertainty so that no regulatory decision can be made. One common method is to employ “reanalysis.” That is, get the raw data from a study that is adverse to your position, then reanalyze it over and over, changing assumptions and conditions, enough to get a different conclusion, which then can be used to cast doubt. If reanalysis doesn’t do it, then conduct a new study, often designed specifically to create conflicting data, so again there is uncertainty. Call whatever industry does “sound science” (a term invented by the lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton for the tobacco industry) and call whatever regulators do “junk science” (a term made famous by long-time industry propagandist Steven Milloy, who of course got his start from the tobacco industry).

There is much more, of course. The book is extremely well documented, with many pages of end notes. Michaels is himself a former regulator and so experienced many of his case studies first hand. For those who are not familiar with the history of industry-created doubt, the book will be a real eye-opener. Unfortunately, I found it all too familiar.

Find other science related book reviews (click and scroll down).

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Nano Nano - Europe Yesterday, US Today

Yesterday I noted that the UK issued a report arguing that there was an almost total lack of exposure data for carbon nanotubes (CNT) present in consumer products. Earlier in the year the EU issued a report from the "FramingNano project" that called for the establishment of a nanotechnology governance platform that would both provide technical advise and help make decisions on appropriate actions moving forward. And now last week the US got into the nanotechnology act with a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) called "Nanomaterials Are Widely Used in Commerce, But EPA Faces Challenges in Regulating Risks."

The report made the following recommendations for executive action. First, they recommended that the EPA:

• Complete its plan to issue a Significant New Use rule for nanomaterials.

• Modify FIFRA pesticide registration guidelines to require applicants to identify nanomaterial ingredients in pesticides.

• Complete its plan to clarify that nanoscale ingredients in already registered pesticides, as well as in those products for which registration is being sought, are to be reported to EPA and that EPA will consider nanoscale ingredients to be new.

In addition, the report recommended that EPA should make greater use of the agency’s authorities to gather information under existing environmental statutes. Specifically, according to the GAO, EPA should:

• complete its plan to use data gathering and testing authorities under TSCA to gather information on nanomaterials, including production volumes, methods of manufacture and processing, exposure and release, as well as available health and safety studies; and

• use information-gathering provisions of the Clean Water Act to collect information about potential discharges containing nanomaterials.

Finally, the GAO recommended that EPA consider revising the Inventory Update Rule under TSCA so that it will capture information on the production and use of nanomaterials and so that the agency will receive periodic updates on this material.

The full GAO report can be read in PDF format here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

British Report Laments Lack of Exposure Data on Carbon NanoTubes

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has issued a report arguing that there is an almost total lack of exposure data for carbon nanotubes (CNT) present in consumer products. The report "A Lifecycle Assessment Study of the Route and Extent of Human Exposure via Inhalation for Commercially Available Products and Applications Containing Carbon Nanotubes," was conducted by the Safety of nanomaterial Interdisciplinary Research Centre (SnIRC), with participation of other Academic and Industrial Experts.

As part of the study, "a review of all available CNT-containing products was carried out, and a representative subset of the products was identified for exposure analysis." The selected CNT-containing products were lithium-ion batteries, epoxy adhesive resins, and textiles. The study "assessed the suitability of current lifecycle assessment (LCA) protocols for assessing inhalation exposure from CNT and other nano-products."

The findings of the study indicate that:

* LCA is not a tool for exposure assessment. On the contrary, exposure assessments can provide information to LCA that is relevant for impact assessment of CNT releases. LCA is, however, useful in identifying the stages in the lifecycle during which exposure may be relevant.

* There is an almost complete lack of data to enable both a full-scale LCA, or a quantitative exposure assessment. Due to unavailability of the required data, a simplified LCA approach was adopted in this study, focusing on the potential inhalation exposure during the lifecycle of the selected CNT-containing products. Also, the exposure assessment was limited to qualitative analysis because of the lack
of data necessary for a quantitative assessment.

Furthermore, "both LCA and exposure analysis have shown that the material synthesis stage is prone to giving rise to inhalation exposure to CNTs. However, the few studies carried out so far have generally shown that nanoparticle emissions during synthesis can be effectively controlled through appropriate engineering measures. Significant inhalation exposure to CNT material at this stage should be preventable provided such processes are carried out under appropriate emission control and waste management procedures."

Therefore, the study concludes that "the main emphasis from the exposure point of view...needs to be on other stages/processes in the lifecycle of products, where any sophisticated emission control measures are not likely to exist." They specifically suggest as examples "postproduction handling, transportation, accidental release, and use and disposal of the relevant materials and products."