Public deserves strong safety reviews for chemicals

Maria Doa, PhD, Senior Director, Chemicals Policy

Innovation may involve bringing a new chemical to market, but before the new chemical can be used or sold, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation’s primary chemical safety law, directs EPA to conduct a safety assessment. Specifically, EPA must affirmatively determine whether a new chemical may present—or is not likely to present—an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment”.

Unfortunately, the chemical industry often provides EPA with very little toxicity data for its chemicals. At the same time, it pressures the agency to conduct assessments quickly, claiming that the chemicals under review support innovation and should therefore be approved quickly.

EPA should never be pressured to rubber stamp a safety assessment, no matter how innovative a company claims its new chemical to be. The potential consequences of this pressure for us could include being exposed to chemicals in unanticipated ways and having to spend enormous sums to clean up our air, water, and land. Instead, EPA must be allowed to use the best available information and conduct robust TSCA reviews.

We have seen the problems caused by chemicals that were considered innovative when first introduced – and we are paying the costs to clean them up. For example, “innovative” chemicals, like PCBs, which were introduced many years ago, have since been banned because of their toxicity, persistence and presence in the environment, and ability to accumulate in fish and other animals. Today, we are still trying to clean up uses of PCBs from decades ago that continue to contaminate many of our schools. We are doing the same with PFAS—also known as “forever chemicals”—that contaminate our drinking water, ground water, and farmland.

We all want to support innovation, but not at the cost of our health and environment—or our wallets. So, what should be done?

One way to ensure strong new chemical safety reviews is for industry to test its chemicals—as they are required to do in many other countries. This process should include not only toxicity testing but also testing to determine what could happen if/when the chemical is released into the environment. Will it build up in the environment or in animals or humans? Does it have the potential to cause cancer or negatively affect fetal development? Could the chemical end up in our ground water or our drinking water? If it does, will it be difficult to clean up?

A second approach would be for EPA to more routinely consider whether the chemical is likely to end up being used in ways other than the one(s) presented in an industry application. If so, could these other uses result in greater exposure? Could children or other vulnerable people be affected?

Before submitting a new chemical for review, companies should invest in the testing needed for EPA to conduct a robust risk assessment and make a truly informed determination of whether a chemical will harm public health and/or the environment. If they don’t make that investment, we may all have to pay later.

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