Not just kids’ play any more: TSCA reform gets serious

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

Today, at long last, legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) hit the streets.  A bill, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, was introduced by Senator Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate.  And just to keep things interesting and all of us on our toes, Congressmen Rush and Waxman today released the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 that is similar but not identical and is in the form of a discussion draft, rather than a bill.

It’s been a long road to get here, but of course this is only the end of the beginning.

EDF and the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition support the new legislative language and believe it includes most of the elements needed to move our outdated and broken chemical safety system into the 21st century.  We also will be seeking improvements in several areas as the bill moves forward.

For our coalition’s initial perspective on the positive aspects as well as some of the shortcomings of the legislative proposals, see the news release we issued today.  We will also soon be posting an analysis that aligns the bill’s and discussion draft’s provisions with the planks of our platform, and I’ll provide an update with a link here.

I’ll certainly be posting frequently going forward on specific aspects of the legislation, but what can be said at the outset?  I’ll start with the obvious question:  How would life under this rewrite compare with life under current TSCA?

It simply must be said that, relative to the status quo, the legislation and discussion draft would represent a major sea change in the way we manage chemical safety in the U.S.

The table below highlights some of the big changes.  Over the coming days, I’ll explore these and other issues in more detail, comparing and contrasting the Senate and House versions, and identifying a number of areas where I think improvements are needed to ensure the legislation adequately protects people and the environment.

Currently under TSCA Under the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010
Few chemicals are required to be tested and no minimum data set is required even for new chemicals. A minimum data set (MDS) on all new and existing chemicals sufficient to determine safety would be required to be developed and made public.
EPA is required to prove harm before it can regulate a chemical. Industry bears the burden of proving their chemicals are safe.
No mandate exists to assess the safety of existing chemicals.  New chemicals undergo a severely time-limited and highly data-constrained review. All chemicals, new and existing, would be subject to a full safety determination.
The “unreasonable risk” standard under TSCA is not health-based but rather requires extensive cost-benefit considerations. The safety standard would be a strictly health-based standard, “Reasonable certainty of no harm,” adapted from our pesticide safety laws.
Where the rare chemical assessment is undertaken, there is no requirement to assess exposure to all sources of exposure to a chemical, or to assess risk to vulnerable subpopulations. The safety standard requires the assessment of a chemical to account for aggregate exposure to all sources of exposure to the chemical, and to ensure protection of vulnerable subpopulations that may be especially susceptible to chemical effects (e.g., children, the developing fetus) or subject to disproportionately high exposure (e.g., low-income communities living near contaminated site or chemical production facilities).
Even chemicals of highest concern, such as asbestos, have not been able to be regulated under TSCA’s unreasonable risk standard.  Instead, assessments often drag on indefinitely without conclusion or decision. Chemicals of highest concern would be subject to expedited safety determinations and/or actions to reduce their use or exposure to them.
Companies are free to claim, often without providing any justification, most information they submit to EPA to be confidential business information (CBI), denying access to the public and even to state and local government.  EPA is not required to review such claims, and the claims never expire. All CBI claims would have to be justified up front.  EPA would be required to review them, and only approved claims would stand.  Approved claims would expire after a period of time.  Other levels of government would have access to CBI.
To require testing or take other actions, EPA must promulgate regulations that take many years and resources to develop. In addition to the MDS requirement, EPA would have authority to issue an order rather than a regulation to require existing data to be reported or additional testing to be done.
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  1. Michael Firestone
    Posted April 15, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Richard — please help pass the word that children are NOT a subpopulation — rather EPA views childhood as a sequence of lifestages through fetal development, infancy, and adolescence.



  2. Charli
    Posted April 16, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Making industrial chemicals safer is something we can all get behind. If we want safer chemicals and a safer environment then we must use nonanimal methods of testing.

    Currently, many toxicity tests are based on experiments in animals and use methods that were developed as long ago as the 1930’s; they and are slow, inaccurate, open to uncertainty and manipulation, and do not adequately protect human health. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. More importantly, the current testing paradigm has a poor record in predicting effects in humans and an even poorer record in leading to actual regulation of dangerous chemicals.

    The blueprint for development and implementation for nonanimal testing is the National Research Council report, “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy in 2007.” This report calls for a shift away from the use of animals in toxicity testing. The report also concludes that human cell- and computer-based approaches are the best way to protect human health because they allow us to understand more quickly and accurately the varied effects that chemicals can have on different groups of people. They are also more affordable and more humane.

    These methods are ideal for assessing the real world scenarios such as mixtures of chemicals, which have proven problematic using animal-based test methods. And, they’re the only way we can assess all chemicals on the market.

  3. Posted April 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Great news! Great article! Can you recommend an article or report that lists the harmful ingredients in skincare products? Something that shows that there are definite links to neurotoxicity, allergies, cancer, etc.?
    Thank you