CHEMICALS:

Experts debate ways to reform 1976 toxics law

An overhaul of federal toxics regulations will require prioritizing tens of thousands of chemicals currently in the marketplace, representatives of industry and advocacy groups agree.

At issue: the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

"Getting prioritization is the key to TSCA modernization," Mike Walls, vice president of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), yesterday told a Washington gathering of chemical manufacturers, environmental and public health advocates, environmental justice leaders and consumer product goods companies.

With more than 80,000 chemicals in the TSCA inventory, the first step in prioritization is aligning the list with what is in commerce, Walls said. There is widespread agreement that the focus should be on the highest-priority chemicals and that it should be based on materials' potential for human health risks. But how to do that remains up for debate.

Industry is pushing to use existing data to prioritize because that process can start quickly. "In our view, the appropriate starting point to drive a priority system is available hazard and use information," Walls said.

But Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy and communications for the Environmental Working Group, said it will be critical to get new information because little is known about many chemicals. "We're really flying blind on the exposure side, we don't know anything," he said.

Wiles agreed with the industry call to begin with existing data but cautioned that the overall emphasis needs to be on gathering new data to uncover what he called the "essential missing piece to prioritization" -- chemicals found in human bodies.

"It's not a bad idea to set priorities based on what we know now; that's probably a great way to jump-start the program," Wiles said. "But priority setting has to be dynamic. Come up with a quick list right off the bat, but then we need a way to force the key data we need to set the next set of chemicals within a very short period of time, within 18 months, two years after we start this process, and that's going to have to be based on new data."

The debate over priorities comes in preparation of TSCA reform legislation expected to be introduced this month in Congress.

"This truly is an historic event, and we are encouraged to see the EPA, environmental groups and consumer companies come together to discuss a law that is central to one of the most important issues Americans are faced with today: the safety of the products we use to make our lives better, safer and healthier," ACC President Cal Dooley said.

Added EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson: "We are truly at a transformative period."

Jackson last week unveiled six principles she said should guide Congress as it debates a TSCA overhaul. She wants lawmakers to place the burden of proving the safety of a chemical on industry and to give EPA sufficient authority to require additional information about chemicals and take risk-management actions. The agency is also advocating a system for prioritizing high-risk chemicals and providing equal scrutiny for new and existing chemicals.

Under current TSCA regulations, EPA faces what many critics call a Catch-22 in regulating chemicals because of the burden of proof the law places on the government. The agency must prove a chemical poses a health threat before it can act, but regulators also need proof before they can require companies to provide more information about a chemical.

Since TSCA was enacted, EPA has used it to evaluate the safety of 200 chemicals and banned five.

""We know far too little about chemicals coming into the market," Jackson said. "Manufacturers have far too little certainty about how chemicals they make are regulated. The EPA needs the tools to do the job that the public expects."

Setting a safety standard

Another potential sticking point in the reform effort is the question of how to define TSCA's safety standard.

The current definition says EPA must show why it believes a chemical poses a health threat and must use the least burdensome alternative to restrict a chemical's use.

Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research with the Environmental Working Group, said her group is pushing to change the standard. To ensure a reasonable certainty of no harm, she said, the standard should require the use of biomonitoring to protect the most vulnerable populations -- including children in utero -- and acknowledge scientific uncertainty.

Steve Goldberg, vice president and associate general counsel for Germany-based BASF, presented a list that also emphasized the need for a risk-based standard. But he emphasized the importance of having a standard that does not discourage innovation or stop companies while regulators determine how to proceed on a chemical. Finally, he said the standard should focus on chemical regulation rather than product regulation.

Speakers at the conference agreed on the advantages of trying to work together across ideological lines.

"We have to be able to go to the Hill and show alignment at least at the principle level," said ACC's vice president for federal government relations, Marty Durbin. "It's not a simple issue, and it doesn't have broad recognition of climate change or health care. ... We've got to find a way to make this a bipartisan process."

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