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U.S. Chemical Management: The Toxic Substances Control Act

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the principle law for managing chemicals in the U.S. This law was enacted in 1976 to provide a regulatory frame work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address chemicals throughout their life cycle.

TSCA was heralded as a major step forward in providing urgently needed authority to protect human health and the environment from dangerous chemicals. However, 34 years on, policy makers and public health experts agree that TSCA has failed.

One of the failings of TSCA is that it lacks mandatory safety requirements before a chemical can gain access to market. TSCA gives legal authority to the EPA to ban the manufacture and import of those chemicals that pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. However, when TSCA was enacted it grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals in use at that time (“existing chemicals”), and since then, less than 200 of these have been tested for human safety -- while only five have been banned since 1990. In fact, the EPA has reviewed the human health risks of only an estimated 2% of the 62,000 chemicals that were in use in 1976. Consequently, the vast majority of existing chemicals have never been evaluated for potential toxicity (beyond acute toxicity) to infants, children, developing fetuses, or adults. 

While the EPA has the authority to require additional testing of existing chemicals, to do so the agency must first prove that a chemical presents an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment during manufacture, distribution, use, or disposal; that inadequate data exists; and that testing is needed to predict its effects. Without the necessary safety tests needed to determine the toxicity of a chemical before potential exposures, it is difficult for the EPA to make a case that a chemical presents an “unreasonable risk” and should not be produced.

EPA’s 1998 Chemical Hazard Data Availability Study revealed that although nearly 3,000 chemicals have High Production Volume status in the United States (defined by the EPA as imported or produced at one million pounds per year or more), complete basic toxicity profiles (covering acute, sub-chronic, chronic, developmental, and reproductive toxicity, as well as mutagenicity) were available for only 7% of these.

While the EPA has set up worthwhile endeavors such as the Sustainable Futures Program, the Green Chemistry Program and the Design for the Environment Program, all of these programs are voluntary, not mandatory. Thus, the original intention of TSCA to protect human health and the environment from dangerous chemicals is dependent on chemical manufacturers' willingness to participate in these programs and in their willingness to take seriously the potential harm to public health.

Learn more about the need for chemical reform in the United States.

Learn more about toxic chemicals and environmental justice.

Learn more about international efforts to manage toxic chemicals.

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