this wonky NAS report." >
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Our nation's clean water policy should provide all communities with access to healthy, safe water by protecting the streams and wetlands that contribute to our drinking water supply.

Fixing a toxics “quagmire” at EPA: the role of risk assessment in chemical policy reform

Posted by Molly Rauch, MPH on September 16, 2010

If you’ve heard about proposed reforms of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), you may have also heard about a set of recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the nation’s top scientific experts, for assessing chemical safety. Health professionals, environmental groups, and scientific researchers, as well as local community groups around the country, affirm that incorporating the NAS recommendations into TSCA reform is an important step in crafting a chemicals management system that effectively protects human health. In today’s post, I try to explain why we’ve all been talking about this wonky NAS report.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates the vast majority of industrial chemicals manufactured and used in the US. The law, enacted in 1976, has a marked pro-industry approach, and has proven toothless in allowing the EPA to regulate even those toxicants widely known to harm health, such as asbestos. (Yup, it’s true. The known carcinogen is still legal for a variety of uses in the US.)  PSR has long argued that the chemicals management system is broken and needs a health-protective overhaul.

A new bill introduced in Congress over the summer -- the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act (H.R. 5820) – aims to do just that, and, together with the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition, PSR has been optimistic that this legislation could lead to greater health protections and, ultimately, better health for American citizens.

There are several exciting policy approaches outlined in the new bill. One is a requirement that the chemical industry demonstrate that chemicals are safe, rather than the EPA having to prove they are unsafe. Another provision makes it harder for industry to keep chemical information secret. Yet another is the requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency relies on the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations to incorporate the best and latest science when determining the safety of chemicals.

So, what exactly does that last item mean?

At a Congressional briefing yesterday, Thomas Burke, PhD, the Chair of the National Academy of Sciences panel that crafted the aforementioned recommendations, addressed the question of how risk assessment can be more health-protective. The NAS panel he chaired created a step-wise process to use existing science for decision-making, even in the face of scientific uncertainty.

Dr. Burke characterized EPA’s risk assessment process as a “quagmire.” Among many problems with the process, Dr. Burke explained that the agency’s risk assessments have not generally accounted for variability in human susceptibility to toxic chemicals. Moreover, current risk assessments are not adequately capturing multiple exposures to chemicals, complex mixtures of chemicals, and the fact that some populations are disproportionately exposed to chemicals. EPA needs a cumulative risk assessment strategy that takes all these things into account, he said.

The chemical manufacturing industry, mainly in the form of the American Chemistry Council, has vehemently opposed the health-protective policies laid out in the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act. Dr. Burke expressed frustration with the way such opposition cites science and scientific uncertainty in particular as the best justification for avoiding stronger regulation. “Science has become a surrogate battleground for the debate on regulation,” he said, affirming that effective regulation can be implemented even in the face of uncertainty. That’s why we have a risk assessment process, and that’s why that process needs to be as current and rigorous as possible.

Now we need to make sure that the system regulating the manufacture and use of chemicals in our country reflects this need. When the NAS recommendations are incorporated into our chemicals management system, Americans will be healthier.

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