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EPA Wants More Oversight on Chemicals

by Kelly Zito

Tens of thousands of chemicals found in everyday items, from toys and cell phones to food containers and medical devices, would face high levels of federal scrutiny and control under a set of guidelines unveiled Tuesday in San Francisco by President Obama's top environmental official.

Water bottles display tags proclaiming their lack of bisphenol A, a controversial chemical used to harden plastics. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images) The effort to rewrite how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency evaluates and enforces the use of potentially harmful chemicals marks the most significant overhaul of the nation's chemical policies since the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.

The move also coincides with growing public alarm over the risks posed by chemicals of all stripes - from pesticides in food to plastic coatings in baby bottles and flame retardants in clothing and pillows. Of particular concern are rising levels of toxics found in children and developing fetuses.

EPA chief's call

"Chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment and our bodies," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in an afternoon conference call with reporters. "Some chemicals may be risk free ... but the public is understandably anxious and confused. They're looking to the government for assurance that these chemicals have been assessed using the best available science. Current law doesn't allow us to give those assurances."

Jackson unveiled the EPA's chemical reform goals during a talk at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club on Tuesday evening.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates chemicals in food, drugs and cosmetics, the EPA has jurisdiction over some 80,000 chemicals used in just about every other sector of the economy. Despite the huge and varied uses, however, current codes do not require manufacturers to collect or submit toxicity data to the EPA. In addition, legal roadblocks have meant the government has severely restricted or banned only five of those 80,000 chemicals, including dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium.

Two-pronged plan

The administration's new plan is two-pronged. First, Jackson said her agency would work with Congress on legislation that would, among other things, call for chemicals to be evaluated based on health and safety risks and for manufacturers to submit toxicity data for existing and new chemicals. Legislation would also give the EPA authority to ban or restrict chemicals.

One bill expected to be reintroduced in the U.S. Senate this session would require chemicals used in baby bottles, children's toys and other products to be proved safe before they are put on store shelves.

In addition to legislative changes, the EPA will use existing regulatory power to launch new reviews of "priority" chemicals that the agency could ultimately restrict or ban. Among those are bisphenol A and phthalates. Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a plastic-hardening chemical. Phthalates, which add flexibility and durability, are used in everything from glues to medicine coatings to vinyl upholstery. Both are associated with disrupting hormone production.

Obsolete regulations

While the EPA's goals seem to cover very basic ground, environmental health advocates say the move is evidence that the nation's chemical regulations under the TSCA - sometimes pronounced "tosca" - are obsolete.

"The system we have now assumes that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty," said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. "These reforms introduced today would flip that."

Despite the sweeping changes and added costs the administration's reforms could impose on the chemical industry, its main trade group, the American Chemistry Council, commended Jackson's announcement. Council president and chief executive Cal Dooley said Obama's guidelines hew closely to his group's recently released aims for reform.

"We have confidence we can modernize TSCA, which can give consumers greater confidence while also ensuring we'll have products at the forefront of innovation and provide high-paying jobs," Dooley told reporters.

Along with regaining consumers' trust in his industry, Dooley acknowledged that by supporting the EPA's measures, chemical manufacturers also hoped to avoid a "patchwork" effect created by layers of state and regional laws.

Surviving Washington

Some scientists, however, expressed concern that the EPA's effort could get bogged down in the Beltway morass.

"Just like climate change legislation and health care reform have not been easy to achieve, my guess is it won't be easy to achieve toxic chemical reform," said Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley and a visiting scholar with UC Berkeley's department of chemistry. "Jackson will need a lot of support from the public, scientists and industry."

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