Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

EPA Wants More Oversight on Chemicals

Kelly Zito

Water bottles display tags proclaiming their lack of bisphenol A, a controversial chemical used to harden plastics. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images)

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.

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

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

"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

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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