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EPA seeks broad powers to regulate chemical industry

By RANDY LEE LOFTIS / The Dallas Morning News
rloftis@dallasnews.com
The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it is seeking broad new powers to regulate toxic substances in commerce, products and the environment, including clear authority to ban unsafe chemicals.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson laid out the administration’s principles for rewriting the nation’s main toxic chemicals law, which has not been revised significantly in 33 years.

During that time, thousands of new chemicals, processes and even types of substances have entered the economy, many with little or no health and safety review by manufacturers or the government. Researchers have found the chemicals in millions of Americans’ bodies; one study found big increases in the levels of a widely used flame retardant in the blood of Dallas residents.

“Today, everything from our cars to the cellphones we all have in our pockets are constructed with plastics and chemical additives,” Jackson said. “Chemicals are ubiquitous in our economy and our products as well as our environment and our bodies.”

House and Senate Democrats are expected to introduce bills to strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act soon. Among the anticipated changes is one that Jackson endorsed: letting the EPA act on its own to restrict or outlaw chemicals that do not meet health and safety standards.

1991 ruling on asbestos

A 1991 federal appeals court ruling on asbestos essentially gutted the agency’s power to ban chemicals under the existing law. Congress banned further use of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, when it passed the toxic substances law in 1976, but the 1991 asbestos ruling has kept the EPA from acting against other risky chemicals.

Jackson said new chemicals and scientific breakthroughs had rendered the law weak and obsolete. Those include the discovery that some chemicals can disrupt the human endocrine system, new knowledge of the risks of some flame retardants, and increasing production of extremely small nanoscale materials that have undergone virtually no health screening.

While some substances might be proved harmless, Jackson said, the widespread discovery of many synthetic chemicals in virtually the world’s entire population demands safety assurances that an outdated law cannot provide.

“Over the years, not only has [the toxics law] fallen behind the industry it’s supposed to regulate, it’s been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightly expects,” she said in remarks prepared for delivery in San Francisco on Tuesday evening.

The administration wants to change the current chemical safety system, which puts new chemicals under more scrutiny than the 80,000 already believed to be in use, Jackson said. Sorting through all existing chemicals could take decades at the current pace, with the public possibly facing undue risk while the process drags on.

Jackson said the EPA would prioritize reviews of existing chemicals by requiring more information from industry on health and safety, use and human exposure. She added, however, that the agency would not skip over possible risks in the interest of speed.

“None of the 80,000 should be exempt,” Jackson said. “I think industry understands that.”

Texas is the heart of the U.S. chemical industry, especially along the Gulf Coast from Beaumont-Port Arthur to Corpus Christi. The federal toxics law regulates chemicals as they come into contact with people through products or industrial uses. Risks from chemical emissions into the air fall under the Clean Air Act.

Industry seeking validation

The chemical industry has endorsed reform of the toxics law along the general lines that Jackson mentioned, in part to boost confidence among consumers worried about compounds in their bodies and their children’s. The industry said its principles include imposing more stringent requirements for health and safety information from manufacturers and giving more weight to risks for children and other vulnerable groups, both mirroring the EPA’s goals

“We are convinced today, through our own testing in the industry, that our products are safe,” Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, the trade group that represents most Texas chemical manufacturers, told reporters. “But we need that validation by the government regulatory agency that is doing the scientific assessments.”

While Congress works to rewrite the law, Jackson said, the EPA plans special reviews of chemicals that have raised particular human health concerns since the law was passed. They include bisphenol A, or BPA, used in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins; polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs), used as flame retardants; perfluorinated compounds, used in soil- and water-repellant coatings on many consumer products; and phthalates, used in many plastics.

The EPA will issue action plans for managing risks from four of the compounds in December and will publish others in four-month intervals, Jackson said.

“This is very good news,” said Dr. Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Dallas, who studies persistent organic pollutants such as the ones the EPA singled out for special review. He has found PBDEs in 100 percent of American mothers’ breast milk tested, with some women carrying “orders of magnitude” more than women in Europe, where the compounds have been phased out since 2004.

A joint study by the School of Public Health, where Schecter is professor of environmental sciences, and the UT Southwestern Medical Center found a “very large increase” in the PBDEs in Dallas residents’ blood in 2003 compared with blood tested in 1993, Schecter said.

Schecter said stronger federal action on risks from persistent organic compounds was overdue.

“What a refreshing change,” he said.

Source: Dallas News