Improving TSCA: The job’s not done yet and new rules are key to protecting public health

By Elizabeth Grossman

While the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century (LCSA) was signed into law with considerable fanfare, the job of reforming and improving the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is far from complete. And while there may have been some hope that the June 22nd White House signing ceremony meant the end of wrangling between the chemical industry and environmental health advocates, it’s too soon to pack up the talking points. It also remains to be seen whose interests will prevail.

Among the biggest changes the new law brings is its requirement that the EPA evaluate all the chemicals it regulates. This means not only new but also existing chemicals – including the 62,000 grandfathered in without testing data when TSCA was enacted in 1976. But exactly which chemicals the EPA will review first and how it conducts these risk assessments has yet to be determined. Both will be decided by rules that must be finalized by June 2017. How these rules are written will in many ways determine how effectively the LCSA protects Americans from hazardous chemicals.

As part of this process, last week the EPA held two public meetings. On August 9th the agency took comments that will, in the EPA’s words, “inform a proposed rule on its process for conducting risk evaluations to determine whether a chemical presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” And on August 10th the EPA held a meeting “to gather input that will inform a proposed rule to establish a risk-based process for chemical prioritization.” Comments made at both suggest that the EPA has some critical decision-making ahead of it.

Chemical industry voices familiar concerns

For example, expressing what’s been a chemical industry concern since the earliest days of the EPA and TSCA, two toxicologists employed by Shell cautioned the EPA against “overly conservative assessments of risk.” The chemical industry has long argued that a precautionary approach could push businesses and consumers away from useful chemicals, and lead to costly environmental cleanups and exposure prevention measures. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has used this same language to criticize the EPA’s draft risk assessments of dioxin, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene (TCE) among other chemicals. The ACC has also made this argument in opposing California’s proposed drinking water standard for perchlorate – and to Congress in its general and long-standing critique of EPA’s risk assessment process.

Several chemical industry representatives also asked the EPA to base risk assessments and prioritization on chemicals’ “intended use” rather than on production volume or inherent hazard. This will likely raise cautionary flags for those concerned about the storage and transport of and occupational exposures to highly hazardous chemicals – like phosgene or hydrofluoric acid – that are used selectively in manufacturing but don’t end up in consumer products.

Others, including Steve Risotto of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), urged the EPA to give industry scientists and other experts “equal consideration for appointment” to EPA chemical review panels. This is another ongoing complaint of the chemical industry that has, in fact, historically dominated the science the EPA considers in its chemical reviews and regulatory process.

The ACC strongly supports the new TSCA, that it was deeply involved in drafting, and released a statement stressing the importance of the EPA’s prioritization and risk assessment process. But as in so many things, the devil is in the yet-to-be decided details.

And the big unanswered question is whether the EPA’s new chemicals assessments will shift the status quo and result in more effective health protection.

The Pump Handle will discuss comments from those on the environmental health advocacy side of the aisle in an upcoming post. – Both rules are open for public comment through August 24th.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing MoleculesHigh Tech Trash and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including National Geographic News, the Intercept, Scientific AmericanEnvironmental Health PerspectivesMother JonesEnsiaCivil EatsThe GuardianYale e360, In These Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and The Nation.


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