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GAO report: EPA's plans for evaluating chemical safety are unrealistic

By: Gayle S. Putrich

April 30, 2013

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency’s plans for evaluating potentially harmful chemicals under current law are unclear and may be unrealistic and impractical, according to a report Monday by the investigative arm of the U.S. government.

In February 2012, EPA named 83 chemicals to be examined in prioritized risk assessments under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Seven assessments were started that year, with another 18 planned over the next two years, including five flame retardants commonly used in the plastics industry.

But according to the Government Accountability Office report, it will take EPA more than a decade to get through all 83 top-priority chemical evaluations at its current rate.

TSCA has not been updated since it was originally signed into law in 1976, though the EPA announced reform initiatives in 2009, along with a new approach for evaluating and managing toxic chemicals safely under the existing law and a long list of chemicals the agency wanted to tackle first.

“Since 2009, EPA has made progress implementing its new approach to managing toxic chemicals under its existing TSCA authority — particularly by increasing efforts to obtain toxicity and exposure data,” the GAO report says. “However, due to requirements under TSCA that place the burden of developing toxicity data on EPA, rather than industry, and because promulgating the rules needed to obtain toxicity data from companies can take years to finalize, and additional time for companies to execute, EPA has yet to obtain much of the toxicity data it has been seeking.”

According to the report, EPA does not have the toxicity and exposure data needed for 58 of the 83 chemicals prioritized for risk assessment, in large part because existing law does not require industry to develop and share toxicity data, a process that can take three to five years.

GAO said that in past reports, it has suggested Congress update TSCA to make the law “less burdensome” for EPA and to give the agency more authority to obtain data from the chemical industry.

Earlier this month, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that would give EPA more power to collect health and safety information on chemicals, prioritize them based on risk, screen them for safety, and require risk management such as labeling, restrictions and even bans when chemicals cannot be proven to be safe. The measure is already facing opposition from chemical companies; a competing bill from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to address a number of industry’s concerns is in the works.