Commercial chemicals' safety unknown

By MICHAEL MCLAUGHLIN, UPI Correspondent  |  Aug. 9, 2006 at 4:19 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 (UPI) -- Thousands of untested industrial chemicals may threaten the public health -- despite a 30-year old law to review and regulate their use.

Chemicals in commercial products often reach the market without the government determining their toxicity to humans and the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The problem originates with the Toxic Substances Chemical Act. The GAO says Environmental Protection Agency "reviews of new chemicals provide only limited assurance that health and environmental risks are identified because TSCA does not require companies to test chemicals before they notify EPA of their intent to manufacture the chemicals."

The GAO also says TSCA hogties the EPA with a cumbersome process to review "existing chemicals" -- or chemicals already in commerce.

TSCA took effect in 1976 and authorizes the EPA to test the safety of new and existing chemicals. The EPA can impose restrictions on harmful substances after proving they possess "an unreasonable risk" to people or the environment.

TSCA has jurisdiction over chemicals like asbestos, lead, radon and other hazardous substances. But it does not oversee every chemical in the market. Other laws regulate chemicals found in pesticides, food additives and drugs.

When TSCA became law, 62,000 chemicals existed. The EPA required tests on fewer than 200 of them since 1976, according to the GAO. But it took action to reduce the risk posed by more than 3,600 of 20,000 chemicals introduced since then.

"The standards the law put into place are surprisingly weak," Laura Suchter of the Environmental Working Group told United Press International. Suchter said TSCA is a law "by, of, and for the chemical industry." Suchter did not know of any potentially harmful chemicals introduced to the market after 1976 that evaded EPA safety checks.

But the EPA called a pre-1976 chemical compound in Teflon a "likely carcinogen" last year, the Washington Post reported. Dupont, the maker of Teflon, announced plans to phase out 95 percent of the chemicals.

The EPA instituted a companion program to TSCA in 1998 to enhance data collection. Manufacturers and importers voluntarily provide the EPA with test data through the High Volume Challenge Program for chemicals totaling 1 million pounds per year. The EPA received information on more than 2,200 chemicals via this program and considers it an achievement.

"This has been a really successful program that can stand on its own," an EPA spokeswoman told UPI.

However, manufacturers or importers might withhold information for chemicals it knows are harmful, because the program is voluntary. The EPA cannot punish companies based on its findings either, according to the EPA spokeswoman.

Nonetheless, the EPA affirms the effectiveness of its chemical regulations and dismisses the GAO's concerns. "We feel like the tools available under TSCA are adequate to protect human health and the environment," said the EPA.

Indeed, the chemical industry strongly supports the current regulations.

"TSCA is a sound statutory and regulatory system," said Michael Walls of the American Chemical Council in Senate testimony Aug. 2.

Walls told UPI the data from GAO is misleading. For instance, roughly 9,000 chemicals are in active commercial use, much lower than the 82,000 the GAO said exist.

The American Chemical Council thinks GAO favors overly cautious standards. Scientists do not need to run the full gamut of tests on all chemicals, because they can predict the effects of similar materials.

"The GAO is operating on the assumption that a data gap is a data need," Walls told UPI.

"It is a robust vehicle that can effectively address emerging chemical issues, while retaining sufficient flexibility to promote innovation and the active involvement of chemical manufacturers in the safe management and use of chemicals," Walls told the Senate.

The GAO finds weakness in the law where Walls sees "flexibility."

"EPA's toxicity and exposure data is often incomplete and TSCA's authority to require testing in support of the agency's review process is difficult to use," said John Stephenson of the GAO in his written statement to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.

The hearing was the first review of TSCA's performance in more than a decade. Last year Democrats in the House and Senate introduced bills to amend TSCA by requiring manufacturers to more frequently report greater information about chemical substances.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the committee, recommended hesitating to enact tougher regulation, because of the chemical industry's size.

"The chemical industry is a crucial part of the U.S. economy. The United States is the number one chemical producer in the world, generating $550 billion a year and putting more than 5 million people to work," said Inhofe in last week's hearing.

Walls said the ACC does not support the new bill.

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