Congressional watchdog says US environmental agency needs to overhaul toxic substance controls

The US government’s 32-year-old law regulating chemical safety needs a complete overhaul, according to Congress’ investigative arm, known as the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In a 22 January report, GAO says comprehensive reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) - which is administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - should be a top priority. 

In GAO’s ’High Risk’ priority document - which identifies the government programmes, policies, and operations most in need of fixing - the office concludes that EPA’s ’inadequate progress’ in assessing toxic chemicals significantly hampers its ability to protect human health and the environment. 

’The Environmental Protection Agency lacks adequate scientific information on the toxicity of many chemicals that may be found in the environment - as well as on tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially in the United States,’ the report concludes. GAO also criticises EPA for failing to routinely assess the risks of the roughly 80,000 industrial chemicals that are already in use in the US.

In addition, the report says action is needed to streamline and increase the transparency of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), a compilation of reports on specific substances and their potential to cause human health effects. GAO notes thatsome of the chemicals most likely to cause significant health problems are among the IRIS assessments that have taken the longest to complete. EPA’s assessment of dioxin, for example, has been ongoing for 18 years. 

Industry concerns

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), the major trade association for US chemical companies, agrees that improving the quality of EPA’s chemical risk assessments is important. ’ACC has been concerned for some time that the IRIS process was moving more slowly than desired, not only in output, but also with incorporating scientific advances in risk assessment,’ the group states.

Paul Anastas, the director of Yale University’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, says an overhaul of TSCA is long overdue. ’A chemicals statue should not facilitate endless review, analysis and characterisation of problems, rather it should facilitate moving toward new classes of substances of less risk to human health and the environment,’ he tells Chemistry World. ’Right now, TSCA facilitates paralysis by analysis.’

The GAO report points out that the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (Reach) legislation requires companies to provide safety data and risk assessments on the chemicals they produce, but TSCA generally places the onus on EPA to obtain such data. This requirement is costly and time-consuming because it compels EPA to demonstrate that certain health or environmental risks are likely before the agency can require companies to further test their chemicals. 

’Without greater attention to EPA’s efforts to assess toxic chemicals, the nation lacks assurance that human health and the environment are adequately protected,’ GAO warns.

Political power

The new Obama administration does appear to have the political will to rework EPA’s system for assessing chemicals. Throughout his campaign, Obama repeatedly discussed the importance of protecting the public and environment from toxic substances. The agency’s new administrator - chemical engineer Lisa Jackson - recently listed revising and strengthening EPA’s chemical risk management as one of her top priorities.

There is also an expectation on Capitol Hill that members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will use the GAO report to expedite EPA reform in areas like TSCA.

But even if the White House and new Congress actively pursue modifications to TSCA, such efforts will likely face major opposition from chemical companies that have a vested interest in avoiding extra, expensive testing.

’It isn’t just one or two studies that will help define the toxicology and exposure of a chemical - it will be many,’ says Larry Turner, an ecotoxicologist who worked for EPA for nearly 30 years and served in the agency’s toxic substances group during that time. ’This gets very expensive for the chemical companies, and for EPA as well because this extra data has to be processed and assessed,’ he adds.

For its part, EPA would not comment on the GAO recommendations. The agency did note, however, that it has a newly confirmed administrator and will review the GAO report and ’respond accordingly’.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA