In April, both the House and Senate introduced legislation to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act, the law that regulates chemicals in the marketplace. In an effort to drum up support for this overhaul, the Environmental Protection Agency is asserting unprecedented authority under current TSCA regulations by proposing nebulous yet severe regulations, which could harm the very consumers that policymakers aim to protect.
The agency's plans to create a “chemicals of concern” list raises serious questions. No criteria for objectively determining how substances will be placed on this list have been provided. Consequently, a chemical could be added in the absence of any scientific evidence that it causes harm. In the past, EPA has cited sound scientific evidence as grounds for concern. Currently, the only threshold is that a substance may cause harm. This subjective reasoning makes every chemical substance a candidate for listing.
Without scientific evidence that demonstrates exposure causes actual harm, chemicals that have been previously deemed to be safe by other federal agencies could be placed on this list. This will confuse the public and has the potential to stigmatize chemicals without proper scientific assessment of health concern. Putting already-scientifically vetted chemicals at risk of regulatory and legal action could force manufacturers to switch to substitutes that have not been comprehensively tested or proven to be safe.
For example, phthalates — plasticizers found in everything from garden hoses to car dashboards — have undergone extensive scientific scrutiny and passed numerous government safety assessments. In addition, data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that exposure levels to phthalates falls well below safety limits established by both the European Union and the EPA itself. I have personally participated in a comprehensive review of the toxicity of phthalates for the National Toxicology Program, which concluded that there is “minimal to negligible” concern regarding human reproductive or developmental effects of DINP, a commonly used phthalate. Despite this and several other reviews, phthalates continue to be a target of special-interest lobbies and non-governmental organizations. However, this is the first time a federal regulatory agency has minimized the role of scientific evidence in assessing potential health risks.
EPA's move to target chemicals that have already been deemed safe in the absence of sound scientific data is wrong.
Current policies limit exposure based on sound science. Legislators need to require EPA to provide clear scientific criteria that would need to be met prior to placing any substance on the proposed “chemicals of concern” list.
Toxicology expert Zacharewski is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University.