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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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I Want to Love the Chemical Safety Improvement Act -- But It's a Dinosaur

By Amy D. Kyle, PhD MPH

The US desperately needs a modern chemicals policy that promotes innovation, enhances sustainability, and reduces hazards. The US is a laggard among developed nations because it allows largely unfettered use of hazardous and untested chemicals in consumer products and other materials. Many organizations have worked for years to educate the public and the Congress about the hazards of everyday products and the need for chemicals policy reform. Despite political gridlock in Washington, a bipartisan group of senators floated a bill called the Chemicals Safety Improvement Act intended to achieve this aim. 

I want to love this bill.  

Alas. The bill has major deficiencies, including no deadlines; methods and standards tilted toward the interests of the chemical industry; a truly crushing amount of process; and preemption of state authorities.

More surprising to me, the bill is a dinosaur.  It relies solely upon the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and provides no support to retailers, architects, communities, parents, and manufacturers seeking safer materials. 

It is time to support multiple strategies to reduce hazards in products used in homes, schools, and workplaces. Chemicals policy reform can build information resources to support actions in all sectors to reduce unnecessary hazards. This is good for everyone.

States, organizations, and businesses are reducing chemical hazards today by voluntary and mandated approaches.  Retailers including Wal-Mart and Target have announced initiatives to reduce hazards of items they sell. Businesses see incentives to reduce hazards of products for marketing, liability, sustainability, or health reasons. States have passed legislation to require disclosure or reduction of chemical hazards. In Washington State, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires disclosure of chemicals of concern in certain kinds of products used by children. (1)

Whether we are talking about regulatory policies, consumer decisions, business actions, or sustainability initiatives, they all need to be able to avoid known “bad actor” chemicals and then to compare materials to identify safer alternatives.

Innovation is an important goal of chemicals policy. Reducing information barriers is a proven strategy to increase innovation. Such data can support innovation in design of products that have lower hazards or risks.

You might think that the Chemicals Safety Improvement Act would have data provisions that support actions by multiple kinds of entities at multiple levels to reduce hazards. But it doesn’t. The bill directs data resources solely towards meeting the needs of EPA and precludes release of data to the public in many cases.

Now, I like EPA a lot. They do great and important work and deserve our thanks and support. Especially recently. But they can’t do everything. And they operate in a politically charged environment where every action they propose and analysis they complete is challenged by interests that would be affected by it.

This bill does not help with that. It places torturous requirements on EPA. EPA has to figure out what chemicals are of “high” concern and which are of “low” concern and list both. It has to publish frameworks and methods for how it will consider and assess many different kinds of data, even as the methods are rapidly evolving and how it will evaluate chemicals. It has to distinguish between “active” and “inactive” substances. It has to develop a timetable for when it will complete safety assessments for chemicals on the “high” list but is forbidden to assess those on the “low” list. Choke points are everywhere. It will take decades to do all this work.

Moreover, the legislation leaves EPA with the burden to establish that a chemical is a hazard. Chemicals remain innocent until proven guilty, and EPA has a substantial burden to complete even to require submission of any testing data. 

EPA’s authority under the bill is limited to addressing “unreasonable risks.” It can’t take actions on hazards or risks that are merely unnecessary or stupid or careless or easily avoidable.  

EPA’s authority under the bill is limited to “intended uses” of products. It can’t consider foreseeable but unintended impacts. This might include risks to impoverished children who recycle electronics or school children whose buildings are flooded in hurricanes or firefighters who face toxic materials in smoke. Considering only “intended uses” makes no sense in a world where the climate is changing where we can predict that what we intend will not be all that occurs.

EPA’s authority under the bill is limited to use of risk assessment methods. Risk assessment has proven to be a useful tool, but methods do not take good account of important things. One is the importance of the prenatal and early life periods for exposure to hazardous agents. Another is the interaction among different agents and among environmental and social factors. There are valid reasons why individuals or groups might choose more health-oriented ways to assess chemicals for their own decisions.

Many are moving beyond the idea of managing risk as the way to think about addressing chemical hazards. The idea behind risk assessment is to try to determine how much of a hazard can be allowed before too much harm occurs. So the risk is estimated, and if it is too high, action can be taken. Some newer ways of thinking turn this idea on its head and looks for achievable, practical ways to design hazards out of products and practices in the first place. Good information can support such green design and sustainability strategies. 

EPA is unlikely to be able to manage all chemical hazards or to push the needless toxic exposures out of the system. We want and expect EPA to take care of getting the worst chemicals out of products and environments. But there are many more opportunities for reduction of hazard. Common sense says that we are all better off as we move toward less toxic materials in our communities and homes. 

All would benefit if many organizations and businesses had access to information to support a move toward lower hazard materials, and this should be included in a modern chemicals policy.

References

 1. Children's Safe Product Act, State of Washington Department of Ecology

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