Wednesday, March 05, 2008

EU to the Rescue? Regulating Toxic Chemicals

Throughout my professional life, I have, for the most part buried my head in research. That’s what it’s all about - the science - right? Wrong. Not when it comes to toxic chemicals. Back when I was in graduate school, there were some hints that other things, like regulation and risk assessment were important – but I couldn’t be bothered. Even as Sheila Jasanoff, who boggled me with her intelligence and eloquence, led us graduate students through the morass of legalese in her Toxic Torts class, I just didn’t get it. Why laws were written so unintelligibly I could never understand, except maybe to help employ more lawyers.

So twenty years later – maybe even to the semester that I earned the only “C” in my post-secondary career (well – I also pulled off a C in History of the World a well known “gut,” freshman year of college), I am struggling to understand why our country’s Toxic Substances Control Act, the legislation designed to protect us from harmful effects of toxics does not; and why Europe’s new chemical control policy promises so much more.

Thankfully I’m not the only one trying to figure this out. This summer the General Accountability Office or GAO released a report comparing TSCA with Europe’s new Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) legislation. Noting one primary difference between the two, the GAO states:

“TSCA places the burden of proof on EPA to demonstrate that a chemical poses a risk to human health or the environment before EPA can regulate its production or use, while REACH generally places a burden on chemical companies to ensure that chemicals do not pose such risks …….” (emphasis added)

You don’t have to be a toxicologist to know how difficult it is to determine that any one particular chemical poses a risk, you just have to read the papers. He says this, she says that, and meanwhile, polybrominated fire-retardants contaminate the dust in our homes, bisphenol-A leaches from baby bottles, and we’re wondering how the gasoline additive MTBE, which now contaminates groundwater across the country could ever have been allowed. But now the EU is requesting that industry take the lead ensuring (as best they can) that a chemical poses little risk to human health and the environment before setting it loose.

Then there are the tens of thousands of chemicals that were on the market prior to the 1980 enactment of TSCA. Unless there was reason for suspicion, those were grandfathered into chemical complacency. And into our food, clothing, air and water.

Unlike TSCA, REACH does not distinguish between new chemicals or old chemicals, according to a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives REACH will require safety and exposure data on something like 30,000 chemicals currently sold in Europe. Those chemicals that are “carcinogenic, mutagenic, persistent or bioaccumulative or toxic to reproduction” will receive special attention. I just hope the EU has armies of toxicologists lined up to review this stuff!

Many times I’ve harped on how we seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. But it seems the EU has finally looked back before moving forward. When in class, I try to make it clear that being toxic isn’t enough to raise the reputation of a chemical to celebrity status. Exposure matters. How and how much we are exposed to certain chemicals is key. Sometimes exposure takes us by surprise. Who knew that polybrominated fire-retardents would shake free from their products (although one would think that their similarity to PCBs and dioxins might have raised some concern early on about their tendency to bioaccumulate), or that bisphenol-A would leach into water and food to the extent that it does, or that MBTE would wend its way around soil particles into our water, leaving other fuel components behind to be degraded? To address exposure – the EU proposes to consider all uses of a chemical – and to inform all “downstream uses,” clothing, cosmetic, packaging manufacturers for example, of not only the chemical’s properties but also how it behaves in humans and in the environment.

This kind of information, according to Joel Tickner, from the Lowell Center for Sustainable Development, (as reported by EHP), may drive innovation towards less toxic, safer products. According to EHP, “[Tickner] says there is a clear interest of downstream users of chemicals who want the functionality of the chemical but not their toxicity. Companies in sectors such as health care, footwear, electronics, and cleaning chemicals have already started to demand these products from suppliers.”

Amen. And with some trickle down – U.S. companies wishing to supply E.U. with chemicals will have to comply with REACH – there’s hope that we can clean up our act here at home.

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