Friday, January 4, 2013

EPA Releases Draft Risk Assessments Under Existing Chemicals Work Plan

From the USEPA Press Release:

"EPA today released for public comment draft risk assessments, for particular uses, on five chemicals found in common household products. The draft risk assessments were developed as part of the agency’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Work Plan, which identified common chemicals for review over the coming years to assess any impacts on people’s health and the environment. Following public comment, the agency will seek an independent, scientific peer review of the assessments before beginning to finalize them in the fall of 2013." 

The chemicals and specific use for which risk assessments were released are:

  • methylene chloride or dichloromethane (DCM) and n-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) in paint stripper products; 
  • trichloroethylene (TCE) as a degreaser and a spray-on protective coating; 
  • antimony trioxide (ATO) as a synergist in halogenated flame retardants; and 
  • 1,3,4,6,7,8-Hexahydro-4,6,6,7,8,8,-hexamethylcyclopenta-[γ]-2-benzopyran (HHCB) as a fragrance ingredient in commercial and consumer products.

A brief summary of the risk assessments can be downloaded in PDF format.

More information can be read on the EPA website.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

EDF Questions Independence of TERA Kids Chemical Safety Site

Recently, the Toxicology Excellence in Risk Assessment (TERA) non-profit group teamed up with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and others to initiate a website called Kids + Chemical Safety. The site purports to provide "up-to-date health information on chemical hazards and chemical safe use in children." Its tagline is "+ Balanced, scientifically accurate chemical health information." Scientist Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), however, questions TERA's independence.

After pointing out that being a non-profit "does not conflate to, or somehow confer the right to claim, objectivity or independence" (noting that the NRA and EDF itself are non-profits but have a clear perspective on the issues they address), Denison goes on to suggest that the site is not what it seems.

Denison categorizes the topics of the website into two groups: 1) those that are "largely outside of the vested interests of the site's most prominent sponsor" (i.e., ACC), and 2) those that "fall squarely within those vested interests." Denison argues that those two categories "are treated very differently on the website." I'll leave it to you to read his arguments and determine whether his case is valid.

The issue that the website and Denison's counterpoint raises is really about how the public gets its information on the health and safety of products on the market. Ideally all products would have been proven safe to the extent such a proof is possible, with the information from the multiple studies involved synthesized and presented in language both trustworthy and easy to understand by the general public. But this is rarely the case.

Part of this is because science is messy. It doesn't always give us an easy and definitive answer. More comprehensive pre-market testing would help, but in many cases there is no way to prove a negative, i.e., that actual use might result in some unforeseen hazard. We're probably stuck with that uncertainty, though we clearly can do more to reduce it. 

But part of the communication problem is also because the public has learned to distrust the information that is being presented to it. Independent sites could be a good way to build trust, as scientifically accurate information is distilled into something we can all understand. That requires true independence. Unfortunately, too many "grassroots" public information campaigns have turned out to be "astroturf," i.e., they may look real from a distance but are revealed to be fake upon closer inspection. It is small wonder that the public has developed a cynical attitude toward the information it receives.

Clearly Richard Denison feels the new TERA site, in part supported by the chemical industry, does not adequately achieve the independence needed to inspire the public's confidence.

Again, please read Denison's argument before deciding if he makes his case. But also think about how data can be presented in a way that can be both trustworthy and useful. After all, the goal is to inform the public - first, to ensure reasonable protection of their health and safety, and second, to avoid the irrational fear of the unknown caused by lack of reliable and dependable information.