June 21, 2016
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which took effect in 1976, allows high-production volume chemicals to be launched without their chemical identity or toxicity information being disclosed.
It also makes it very difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take regulatory action against dangerous chemicals. For starters, the act only gives the EPA 90 days to determine if a new chemical poses an unreasonable risk prior to it entering the market.
The EPA states they typically don’t get the toxicity data in time to make such determinations, and as such, the EPA has only regulated five chemicals and requested testing for 200 since 1976. There are about 64,000 chemicals in use right now that are not regulated or tested for environmental repercussions.1
An overhaul of the TSCA is desperately needed and has been for decades, making this month’s Senate approval of an update a monumental occasion. Last month, the House approved the update to the TSCA, and it will now be signed into law.
There are some problems with the update, however — especially it’s timeline. As Bloomberg reported:2
“By the time EPA finishes work on the chemicals it has prioritized, the children of today’s children will have been exposed to them — probably for years.”
TSCA Update: Safety Tests Can Take up to 7 Years Per Chemical
There’s no doubt that the EPA should be testing more chemicals for safety, but the TSCA update doesn’t go far enough to protect Americans.
On the bright side, the new agreement would give the EPA authority to require companies to provide safety data for untested chemicals and also prevent chemicals from coming to market if they haven’t been tested for safety.
It also removes the 90-day limit for the EPA to determine chemical risks and, at least on the surface, eliminates a requirement that chemical regulations had to take into account the cost of compliance. Other notable improvements include:3
- The EPA will be required to determine whether a chemical meets a set safety standard before it enters the market.
- The EPA must consider a chemical’s effects on particularly vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.
- The EPA must quickly review chemicals known to persist in the environment and build up in humans.
- Companies will no longer be allowed to keep data secret due to “trade secret” and other confidentiality claims.
The EPA has already identified 90 chemicals as high priority, and such chemicals are supposed to take precedence.
However, the bill’s language was created after close work with the American Chemistry Council in order to ensure it would “win the support of industry.”4 As such, while the bill requires the EPA to begin conducting safety tests on roughly 64,000 chemicals, they only have to test 20 chemicals at a time.
Further, each chemical has a seven-year deadline, such that it will be a very long time before potentially toxic chemicals stop being used. As Bloomberg reported:5
“An analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has criticized the TSCA rewrite as too weak, estimates that EPA needs 28 years to complete risk evaluations on the 90 chemicals in its work plan, 30 years to finalize related regulations on those chemicals, and 35 years to implement the resulting rules.”
States May Lose Ability to Restrict Toxic Chemicals
Congress caved in to industry and allowed a single regulatory system to oversee the industry, and also allowed companies the right to seek a federal waiver from the rules for certain chemicals.
Under the new agreement, states may lose their power to regulate chemicals they deem toxic. In return, language was inserted to allow states to restrict a chemical’s use only if the federal risk review takes more than 3 ½ years. As The Washington Post reported:6
“The EWG’s Scott Faber, the organization’s vice president for government affairs, said the EWG walked away from the bill because it represents ‘only a slight improvement’ on ‘the worst environmental law in the books.'”
Other Glaring Problems With the Chemical Bill Update
The EWG pointed out several other notable failures in the new legislation:
- State action against chemicals can be suspended for more than three years while the EPA completes its safety review. The EWG reported:7
“States have been the only cops on the chemical safety beat, regulating scores of chemicals and driving marketplace innovation. Any legislation that claims to be better than current law would permit state action until an EPA rule is final.”
- No adequate funding is required from the chemical industry, which means there’s a good chance the EPA will lack the funding needed to review toxic chemicals already on the market. According to the EWG:8
“To make TSCA better than the status quo, Congress should provide enough funding to review the most dangerous chemicals in a generation — not a century … The compromise only provides about half of what’s needed.”
- Cost is not fully eliminated from the EPA’s decision-making process, even though it’s purported to have been removed from considerations.
The EWG noted that the bill contains “poison pill provisions that could keep the EPA tied in legal knots” and “negotiators should have at least removed vague requirements that rules be ‘cost-effective.'”
- The EPA will be able to classify chemicals as “low hazard,” but there is no set definition of what low hazard means. The EWG explained:
“Since the compromise allows the industry to dictate up to half of the chemicals EPA will assess for safety, you can bet a lot of their favorite chemicals will soon be bearing this stamp of approval.”
Many Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Are Unsafe at Any Level
The European Commission is in the process of creating regulations for endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals known to interfere with development and reproduction, and they may cause serious neurological and immune system effects.
The disruptions occur because such chemicals mimic hormones in your body, including the female sex hormone estrogen, the male sex hormone androgen, and thyroid hormones.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals may block hormonal signals in your body, or interfere with the way the hormones or receptors are made or controlled.9 Your normal hormone levels may be altered, or the chemicals may change the way such hormones travel through your body.
They’ve been implicated in a host of diseases from cancer and infertility to obesity and diabetes — and they’re found in countless consumer items such as cosmetics, plastics and pesticides.
In 2009, the European Parliament declared that endocrine-disrupting chemicals would not be allowed on the market, and they enlisted the European Commission to determine criteria to identify these chemicals.
The chemical industries then called for an “impact assessment” to be released before the criteria could be released. Environmental Health News explained the repercussions:10
“National health authorities, industry and NGOs are thus in suspended animation awaiting a decision on these criteria for identification — a regulatory tool that will then enable restrictions or, more radically, prohibitions on the use of certain endocrine disruptors.
Today, seven years later, these criteria still do not exist. This impact assessment, with its highly confidential conclusions (as secret as the location of the fountain of youth), is largely responsible for this delay. It was not originally part of the plan, but industry called for it as a way to weaken the regulation.
[This year] Sweden curtly reminded the Commission that the Court ‘prohibits the use of economic considerations to define criteria.’ So what is the nature of the ‘economic considerations’ contained in the pages of the impact study under lock and key?
In addition to the impact on the industry, will they take into account the cost of diseases related to exposure to endocrine disruptors in Europe, which was estimated by independent studies to be at between 157 billion and 288 billion euros per year?”
For Endocrine Disruptors, Low Doses May Be More Toxic
It’s unknown whether the European Commission or the EPA will take into account the fact that sometimes, low doses of chemicals have the potential for great harm.
Many studies assume a linear dose-response relationship for the chemical and any given effect. That is, they assume that if a chemical causes organ damage at 200 parts per million (ppm), it will cause greater damage at higher exposures and less damage at lower levels.
This is a dangerous assumption, because for many toxins, including some endocrine-disrupting chemicals, harm is exerted even at very small doses. Patricia Hunt, Ph.D., a geneticist at Washington State University, explained that endocrine disruptors like bisphenol A (BPA), which act like hormones, “don’t play by the rules.”
Even low-level exposure — levels to which people are currently being exposed — may be enough to damage developing eggs and sperm, for instance. In one of Hunt’s studies, researchers found disruptions to egg development after rhesus monkeys, which have human-like reproductive systems, were exposed to either single, daily doses of BPA or low-level continuous doses.11
Your Body Is Not a Toxin Dumping Ground
It’s virtually impossible to avoid all of the toxic chemicals in your environment, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit silently by while corporations use your home, your water, your air and your body as a convenient toxin dumping ground. Until change occurs on a global scale, you can significantly limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.