Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reforming TSCA - Protecting the Public from Chemicals and Uncertainty

TSCA reform. You've probably heard about it. After all, we've been talking about it for nearly 40 years. And yet nothing has changed. With Senator David Vitter (R-LA) announcing that he will run for Governor of Louisiana in 2015, the current attempt to reform TSCA may or may not actually happen.

For those new to the idea, TSCA is the Toxic Substances Control Act. It was passed in 1976 to fill in a massive gap in our nation's regulatory framework. TSCA requires that new chemicals undergo a review prior to being manufactured for the market. However, very little data are required to be submitted, and no health and safety data are required. Therefore, that "review" must be done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using a series of models to predict the potential for toxicity, environmental fate, degradation, and virtually all the other key properties. EPA then models potential exposure to workers, the general public, fish, and animals and plants. If EPA thinks there may be a problem (based on all of this modeling and very little data), they can ask for additional data or deny the application.

Oh, and the EPA must do all this within 90 days or the new chemical can be manufactured by default.

Given the large number of new chemicals offered every year (between 1000 and 2000), the lack of substantive data in many cases, and the short time EPA has to make a decision, it isn't surprising that the vast majority of new chemicals are allowed to be manufactured.

For the roughly 63,000 existing chemicals already on the market when TSCA was passed, the law simply grandfathered those chemicals onto a TSCA Inventory. The assumption was that these chemicals must be safe because they were already being used. With the exception of a several chemicals that were later shown to have very high hazard, very little has been done to evaluate the risk from these existing chemicals.

Most chemicals are safe. That should be made clear. We use chemicals dozens of times in every day life. They are in our shampoo, our soaps, our kitchen cleaning solutions, the keyboards we type on, and the monitors we stare at all day long. Without chemicals, life as we know it would be something none of us has ever known. And most of those chemicals can be used safely, assuming we use them as they are designed.

On the other hand, maybe some can't. Enough cases have arisen of chemicals suddenly being discovered to be hazardous under normal use conditions to confirm that sometimes chemicals are not safe.

So how do we know?

In future posts I'll take a look at the two core issues - ensuring safety and communicating that safety to the public. I'll also take a look at the current bill in Congress that attempts to reform TSCA. The Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is a bipartisan measure that presents the best opportunity for improving the control of chemicals in the United States. It's not a perfect bill - far from it. But it is passable and does make some needed changes. Can Congress drop the partisan games long enough to pass on something they largely agree on? Will Senator Vitter's gubernatorial bid help or hurt the cause? Can it be done before the 2014 mid-term congressional elections, the result of which will almost certainly doom industry to an onslaught of advocacy group attacks and a hodgepodge of state-based regulation?

What do you think?