With growing evidence of the link between exposure to toxic chemicals and chronic diseases, especially in children, the United States needs to step up its efforts to protect the public from hazardous chemicals, say researchers writing in the May issue of Health Affairs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stymied by the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), must seek partners in academia to help evaluate the risks of industrial chemicals on the market today, write Sarah Vogel of the Johnson Family Foundation and Jody Roberts of the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
The May issue of Health Affairs is the journal’s first-ever thematic volume on environmental health. You can listen to a Washington D.C. briefing featuring many of the authors from the issue (video available soon). An earlier blog post discussed four of the other articles that focus on the impact of environmental factors on children’s health. The issue and briefing were supported by a grant from the Kresge Foundation.
Some 83,000 chemicals are on the market, and under TSCA, enacted in 1976, companies do not have to prove their chemicals are safe. Instead, the federal government must prove whether a chemical is dangerous. This provision keeps potentially harmful chemicals on the market, increasing the risk to human health. Furthermore, the process required by the law to identify and control hazardous chemicals requires an extensive process of collecting, analyzing and evaluating data. This process consumes considerable government time and resources and acts as a roadblock to efforts to manage chemical risks and protect the public’s health, according to the Vogel and Roberts.
Since the Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted, we’ve learned a great deal about everyday chemical exposure and its contribution to a growing number of chronic diseases such as reproductive disorders, learning and behavioral disabilities, and diabetes, the authors observe. Yet the EPA has had a nearly impossible time regulating the use of hazardous chemicals, such as asbestos, because it is hindered by the very high burden of proof that falls on the agency.
With reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act uncertain, given the current political and budgetary climate, the EPA must look beyond Washington to strengthen its oversight of chemicals and accelerate efforts to reduce exposures to those chemicals that might contribute to poor health, Vogel and Roberts write. They propose that the EPA partner with academic institutions and professional societies to test and evaluate the risks of high-priority chemicals — including those that are produced in the greatest quantities, are commonly found in the human body, and that pose a potential risk to children’s health and development.
These partners could generate independent analyses by using clearly defined and transparent evaluative standards and controlling for conflicts of interest, the authors say. Building such partnerships would also strengthen the EPA’s existing programs and better position it for any transitions that may come with changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act. In April, a bill was introduced in the US Senate that would reform the country’s chemical policy and align the United States more closely with changes in Europe. The bill would require chemical producers to submit safety data for all chemicals, new and existing, and prioritize substances of concern for review and risk management. Many states have already taken steps to limit the market for hazardous chemicals, such as restricting lead in toys and bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles.