Published — September 16, 2010 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

EPA toxic chemicals bill likely on hold until after election


The way the Environmental Protection Agency evaluates the risks posed by toxic chemicals is badly in need of an overhaul, but any change will likely have to wait until after the November election, environmental groups and scientists said.

The EPA’s risk assessments fail to consider the various ways Americans are exposed to chemicals, doesn’t evaluate chemical interactions or cumulative effects, and ignores the vulnerabilities of infants, the elderly, and pregnant women, the scientists said at a Capitol Hill briefing held by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of health and environmental advocates. The agency is required to evaluate hazardous chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences offers a roadmap to update the EPA’s process of assessing chemical hazards. Currently, the EPA must prove a substance poses an “unreasonable risk” before trying to regulate it – a burden the agency has met for only five chemicals.

Reform advocates want to shift the burden and require industry to prove chemicals are safe before they find their way into consumer products and the environment. Some pro-business and industry groups say that approach would stifle innovation, eliminate jobs, and compromise trade secrets.

With polls showing a number of congressional races as close, some industry groups are hoping that Republicans will seize control of at least one chamber in November, making it harder for broad changes to win approval.

“Industry has made the decision that they feel like they’d be better off delaying until they can get a new Congress, and they’ve pulled out all the stops,” said Environmental Defense Fund scientist Richard Denison. If Democrats lose their majority in one or both chambers, he said it would be “tougher, but not impossible” to pass a reform bill.

The tone of negotiations on the toxic chemical bill changed about two months ago, Denison told the Center for Public Integrity. Before then, some companies — spurred in part by harsher regulation by some states — had agreed, in principle, that there should be some form of reform, he said.

Thomas Burke, chairman of the NAS panel that wrote the report, said that, contrary to some industry claims, the science underlying the drive toward reform is sound.

“The science has become the surrogate battleground for concerns about regulation and costs,” said Burke, who is associate dean at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If you’re concerned about regulation, you can say the science is not ready.” The scientific process is inherently uncertain, he said, cautioning against “endless delay in the name of uncertainty.”

In testimony before a Senate committee last December, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called on Congress to pass reform legislation. “The time has come to bring TSCA into the 21st century,” she said.

Burke said he met with the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to discuss improving their processes for evaluating chemical risk. The report he and his team produced, he said, “has people thinking.”

“This has real public health implications,” Burke said. “It’s not to say the sky is falling, but we need a better way.”

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