Despite TSCA-like law, there is movement down under on chemical safety

Alissa Sasso is a Chemicals Policy Fellow.

Australia’s chemical law, dating back to 1989, in many ways resembles the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA).   Australia, however, has begun taking steps to address tens of thousands of existing chemicals at a scale that has not been taken in the U.S.  These steps come in the wake of government and stakeholder recognition that Australia’s TSCA-like approach to chemicals management is inadequate and in need of revision. 

Accelerated assessment of existing chemicals.  The primary federal body in Australia charged with assessing the safety of industrial chemicals is the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS).  In June, NICNAS released a list of 3,000 priority chemicals for assessment.  These “Stage One” priority chemicals are the first group on the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances (AICS) to be addressed under the Multi-tiered Assessment and Prioritization (IMAP) scheme.  IMAP was developed by NICNAS to address concerns expressed by stakeholders over the slow progress in assessing the approximately 39,000 existing chemicals on the AICS.  IMAP assessment of the Stage One chemicals began on July 1 and will run for 4 years, with review of 800 of the Stage One chemicals slated to be completed by the end of 2013.  In the final year of the assessment of Stage One chemicals, an external review will be conducted to identify the best way to proceed with the remaining existing chemicals on the inventory.  

The criteria for inclusion in Stage One of IMAP was based on “characteristics agreed by stakeholders”  for early concern and include  “chemicals for which NICNAS holds exposure data, chemicals identified as a concern for which action has been taken overseas, and chemicals detected in international studies analyzing chemicals present in the blood of babies’ umbilical cords.”  The assessment outcomes will categorize chemicals as:  (a) posing no “unreasonable risk” – a term that appears in Australia’s main chemical safety law and, of course, Tormation in TSCA, (b) requiring safety and risk management procedures, or (c) requiring a more in-depth assessment to determine their risk.  The results of the assessments will be published on the NICNAS website periodically to “increase chemical information flow and enhance chemical management.”

Review of the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.  In June, the Australian government also published a review of NICNAS to identify changes needed to “enhance both the competitiveness of the Australian chemical industry and public health and environmental outcomes.”  The discussion paper highlighted many problems within the regulatory framework of NICNAS – which show remarkable overlap with deficiencies identified under TSCA.  For example:

  • The majority of the 39,000 chemicals on the AICS were grandfathered in and have never been assessed.
  • NICNAS has no means to identify chemicals that are no longer in commerce.
  • NICNAS has limited power to restrict, ban or impose conditions on the use of hazardous chemicals, particularly when evidence of risk emerges after the chemical is in commerce.
  • NICNAS has limited authority to request additional information from chemical manufacturers or importers on, or to track changes in, chemical production, import or use.

This discussion illustrates that the shortcomings of our outdated TSCA are not unique to the U.S., and it is noteworthy that other countries are identifying common issues for reform.  As noted above, Australia has already initiated action to assess the large number of grandfathered-in chemicals.  Not only has NICNAS identified a large list of priority chemicals to begin with, it also plans on assessing all existing chemicals in the foreseeable future.  

The number of existing chemicals that have never been assessed in the U.S. is even greater than that of Australia. Addressing this issue is fundamental both to ensuring the sustainability of the U.S. industry and to protecting our health.  The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, recently amended and passed by a key Senate committee, proposes a similar strategy of batching these existing chemicals for assessment and prioritization in an efficient manner.  This legislation would better align our own chemicals policy with global efforts, such as those in Australia, to address rising health and environment concerns about chemical exposures.

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