The contamination of water with lead in Flint, Michigan has rightly refocused national attention on the ongoing tragedy of childhood lead exposure in the United States. As John Oliver has rightly and wittily noted, water is but one source of exposure; another compelling tragedy is our ongoing failure to fund the control of lead-based paint hazards, which represent a large and preventable source of childhood lead exposure.
Prevention of childhood lead exposure makes good economic sense: for every $1 invested in protecting children from lead hazards in their home, society would benefit between $17 and $220. This cost-benefit profile is comparable with childhood vaccines. And, in the US, childhood lead exposure is a big problem, costing $50 billion per year.
The costs of lead poisoning are likely to pale in comparison with a broader, unknown set of synthetic chemical hazards commonly found in the environment. There are over 85,000 such chemicals in widespread use, with over 600 new chemicals introduced each year. Yet the current law for managing chemical hazards, which was promulgated in 1976 as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), grandfathered-in 60,000 chemicals that were already in use and gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) little power to require proof of safety for newly manufactured chemicals. The flaws in the regulatory framework have been magnified due to accelerating evidence that some of these chemicals are toxic at exceedingly low levels, disrupt basic hormonal functions that contribute to normal human physiology, and contribute to disease.
Inadequate Funding For Reviewing Grandfathered Chemicals In A Timely Fashion
Bipartisanship has been rare in Congress of late, and the House and Senate deserve praise for their efforts to reform TSCA. Yet the bill that has emerged from a congressional conference committee fails to establish a robustly funded infrastructure to ensure testing of chemicals that were grandfathered in. Without data about potential health effects, even the strongest principles for chemical regulation will inevitably fail to yield the expected protection of children and other vulnerable populations.
The proposed pace of reviewing chemicals is glacial, with a minimum of 10 chemicals in the first year and 25 in the first three and a half years. How can that be sufficient when there are thousands of highly produced chemicals without testing data?
If 1,000 chemicals need to be evaluated over the next 20 years, and each evaluation costs $1.5 million, then $1.5 billion, or $75 million/year, in funding should be budgeted. Others have estimated the costs to even be higher. The conference version permits EPA to receive user fees to fund this program, but these fees are limited to a total of $25 million, or 25 percent of total costs, whichever is lower. An unfunded mandate for EPA hardly seems appropriate given that its budget is 21 percent lower than 2010.
An Over-Reliance On Computer Modeling
We sympathize with the effort to minimize reliance on animal studies, but, as crafted, the legislation could put EPA in the position of deciding about chemical hazards based on a largely unvalidated assumption that computers can model the effect of many chemicals on the human body. While the technology for detecting chemicals of concern through high-throughput testing is promising, a recent study documented its failure to accurately identify chemicals that contribute to obesity in animals and tissues.
An Unsound Triaging Approach
The framework of screening chemicals into high and low priorities to triage reviews is also problematic. Prioritizing cancer risks, chemicals with known and immediate effects, and those that stay in the body for long periods of time makes sense because we are lagging desperately behind in evaluating chemical safety.
Yet, more and more science suggests that chemicals “hit and run,” leaving adverse effects long after exposure, especially in pregnancy. A large—and growing—literature demonstrates that synthetic chemicals can disrupt the developing brains of children and illuminates our failure to learn from the lead epidemic.
Finding A Better Way Forward
Are we prepared to accept a thousand Flints, or should we stand for stronger reform, more in line with the approach Europe has taken to review chemical hazards? Our children represent the future engines of our economic competitiveness, and children in the US are well known to be exposed in utero to higher levels of brominated flame retardants that effect brain development than in Europe, where they are more stringently regulated.
Does TSCA urgently need to be reformed? Of course; even the chemical industries want that. Are there some very good principles in the conference legislation? Yes. Will it mean that the health of children be protected? Without adequate testing data, the legislation is a “house of cards,” allowing chemicals to be “reviewed” and funneled to a “low priority” bin, handcuffing states that wish to make their own decision. There has been some progress in allowing states to consider legislation while EPA reviews chemicals, but “low priority” does not mean “free of harm.”
Given that TSCA has not been revised for 40 years, it’s unlikely we will get another chance to fix this before the next generation of American children continues to participate in a dangerous and unnatural experiment, without their consent.