We don’t know how many chemicals are in use today. We should know.

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

No one knows how many chemicals are in use today.  It’s a problem that we don’t.

The TSCA Inventory lists about 85,000 chemicals, but because it is a cumulative list that started in 1979, it lists all chemicals that have been in commerce at some point since then.  It is not a list of chemicals currently on the market.

EPA periodically collects information on chemicals produced or imported above a certain volume threshold (currently set at 25,000 pounds per reporting site in the reporting year).  In the most recent data collected in 2012, companies reported producing or importing 7,700 chemicals.  However, given the volume threshold and the several exemptions from reporting requirements, we know this number is a significant underestimate of the number of chemicals in active commerce.

This means that all we know is that somewhere between 7,700 and 85,000 chemicals under TSCA’s jurisdiction are presently in commerce.  I’ve repeatedly heard industry and environmentalists cite each of these numbers in claims they make about how many chemicals are in use today.  The truth, however, clearly lies somewhere within this huge range.  

There have been attempts before to close this data gap.  Using its current TSCA authority, EPA proposed “resetting” the TSCA Inventory seven years ago.  The idea died, however, after industry interests opposed it as too burdensome.  And the various iterations of the late Senator Lautenberg’s earlier TSCA reform bill, the Safe Chemicals Act, going all the way back to 2010 featured an inventory reset that entailed companies filing “declarations” of their active production or import of chemicals.  That failed to get any Republican support.  Now some are dismissing the Inventory reset provisions of the Senate’s Lautenberg Act, S. 697, as mere window-dressing or even an industry-friendly provision.  (The House TSCA reform bill, H.R. 2576, has no analogous provision.)

As TSCA reform efforts advance, huge debates have swirled around how long it will take EPA to scrutinize chemicals in use, what resources will be needed, etc.  These questions cannot be answered with any confidence at this point – because we simply don’t know how many chemicals are in use.  An essential first step under a reformed TSCA is to reset the TSCA Inventory and establish a new baseline.

Another key advantage of an inventory reset is the opportunity it provides to reexamine past confidentiality claims that have masked the identities of some 17,000 of the 85,000 chemicals on the Inventory.  S. 697 couples companies’ declarations of active production or import with a requirement that they reassert any chemical identity CBI claims they wish to maintain.  (You can’t require reassertion of claims for chemicals no one is making anymore.)  EPA then is mandated to review and require substantiation of all such claims within 5 years.

We simply have to reset the TSCA Inventory so that we understand just how big the task ahead is.  Not to do so would be to bury one’s head in the sand.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 20, 2015 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Why don’t we also ask EPA to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? That might be almost as worthwhile.

    Seriously, is this really among the very top priorities for our limited federal taxpayer dollars and EPA’s shrinking budget? To answer the question of how many chemicals are produced today, the Udall-Vitter bill burdens EPA with adopting two federal rules and a guidance document, and processing many thousands of notifications, some twice, all within 5 years of enactment of the first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 40 years.

    Meanwhile, we know there’s a backlog of at least 10,000 existing chemicals that have never been assessed for safety. The bill sets a pathetic pace for initiating safety assessments on at least 25 chemicals in the first five years of the program. So instead of demanding a meaningful pace of action, we’re going to waste federal resources to count whether the backlog is really 20,000 or 30,000 chemicals?

    Did I hear shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic?

    If the TSCA Inventory Reset had real teeth, maybe it could be phased in as a much later priority. You would think that a newly designated “inactive substance”, i.e. a chemical that no one has produced in the previous 10 years, would be treated as a “new chemical” under TSCA, if it was about to make a big comeback. For example, having to show that it likely meets the safety standard, maybe with some new test data, before it’s allowed to be manufactured again. Real teeth.

    But, no. All industry has to do to change a chemical’s status from “inactive” to “active” is to notify EPA. That’s it. Presto chango, you’re now “active.” (See page 271 of the reported bill, lines 6-11). No bothersome new chemical requirements. Get at the end of the line of “existing” chemicals awaiting prioritization, maybe some day.

    EPA already has authority under existing law to reset the TSCA inventory. They don’t need to be jammed with an urgent new mandate. Existing reporting rules that are scheduled to ratchet down in 2016 will identify additional chemicals still in production. The legislation already adds other authority to substantiate confidentiality claims. You don’t need a reset to expose the industry’s secret inventory of toxic chemicals.

    Resetting the TSCA Inventory is not inherently bad policy. It’s just symptomatic of the bloated language, wasteful spending, and misguided priority setting endemic to the Udall-Vitter bill.

    Rather than counting chemicals, I’d rather see a greater pace of action on the dangerous chemicals we already know are in widespread production and use.