Saying that the public is "understandably anxious and confused" about chemicals in their bodies and in their environment, President Obama’s top environmental official announced on Tuesday a new push to transform the way the nation regulates industrial compounds.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson called the nation's 1976 toxics law “inordinately cumbersome and time-consuming." As a result, she said the Obama Administration will promote a new chemical law in Congress in the coming months that puts the responsibility on industry to prove that its compounds are safe.
In the meantime, Jackson said, the EPA will begin to analyze and regulate six high-profile chemicals that have raised health concerns. Included are bisphenol A, or BPA, found in hard, clear polycarbonate bottles, and phthalates, which are used in vinyl and cosmetics.
Also targeted are brominated flame retardants added to electronics and other goods; perfluorinated compounds used in manufacturing non-stick coatings and food packaging; some parafins, used in lubricants, and benzidine dyes and pigments. Many scientists say these chemicals can mimic hormones and obstruct development of fetuses and children, as well as possibly cause reproductive problems, cancer or other health effects.
Jackson’s announcement signals a dramatic shift away from the policy of the Bush administration. Top EPA officials who testified before Congress three years ago defended the Toxic Substances Control Act as effective in safeguarding public health from industrial chemicals.
Jackson said the EPA is gathering data from industry on the six chemicals so the agency can assess their safety and develop action plans with firm deadlines to limit exposure. The EPA may restrict their use or require labels on consumer products to warn of risks. The agency already has such authority under the existing law, she said.
The EPA will start with the six high-profile chemicals, then add more. EPA officials said they will post four "chemical action plans" in December describing how they will handle the initial compounds, and then post plans for more chemicals in four-month intervals.
Some 80,000 chemicals—some of them widely used in consumer products--are in commerce today, and some lack detailed health and safety data. Jackson said the agency and the manufacturers will review and act on chemicals with the highest priority in a timely manner.
“As more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably anxious and confused. Many are turning to government for assurance that chemicals have been assessed using the best available science, and that unacceptable risks haven’t been ignored,” Jackson told an audience of several hundred people during a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Tuesday night.
An audience member asked if the EPA would add the right of citizens to sue for non-compliance of the law, a provision that lies within the Clean Water Act.
“That’s a great idea,” she said, and “it was certainly something to consider.”
She credited citizens and states with taking their own steps to manage industrial chemicals, and said it differentiated new environmentalism from old environmentalism.
“The power of citizenry should never be ignored,” she said. For example, mothers of infants concerned about chemical exposure have prompted many manufacturers to produce BPA-free baby bottles.
Jackson made the announcement during her first trip to California as head of the EPA. California last year enacted new chemical legislation, which is designed to spur stronger regulations to manage chemicals.
Representatives of environmental groups that have been participating in talks with the EPA and industry praised the administration for its plan.
In addition, the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, says it has agreed in principle to “supply some level of support” to pay for more increased study and other efforts to assess the safety of compounds.
“We understand that industry has to provide more data and a greater transparency to that data,” said Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council. One of the driving forces of the industry’s participation is the desire to win consumer confidence in products and to regain world leadership in chemical safety, Dooley said.
Under the current law, some 7,000 chemicals are produced or imported annually in amounts above 25,000 pounds, according to industry figures.
Only five have been banned or restricted since the law was enacted 33 years ago. The law requires the EPA to prove a toxic substance "presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment," consider the costs of restricting its use and choose "the least burdensome" approach to regulate industry.
Asbestos was banned in most uses, but it was thrown out of court when the manufacturers won a court battle in 1989.
“The asbestos decision had a chilling effect” on EPA, Jackson said.
In making the announcement, Jackson released a set of principles that she hoped would guide Congress in coming up with a new law.
The EPA isn’t focused as much on rewriting the existing law as it is on coming up with one that would strengthen the agency’s ability to protect the public, she said.
Under the set of principles announced Tuesday, EPA would require manufacturers to supply enough information to conclude that new and existing chemicals are safe and don’t endanger public health or the environment. The EPA also wants clear authority to ban or restrict chemicals, although it would retain flexibility to consider social benefits and costs.
Representatives of the Environmental Working Group, Earthjustice and the Breast Cancer Action Fund question how the new regulatory program might work. Rick Hind of Greenpeace wonders if legislation would pre-empt state action, since some states already have taken action against several chemicals.
Both EPA and industry officials said today they wouldn’t attempt to pre-empt state action at this time. Industry officials prefer a federal law to what they describe as a “patchwork” of state controls.
Many experts say the United States has fallen far behind in regulating toxic substances. In 2007, the European Union began implementing the world's most restrictive chemicals law. It requires manufacturers to provide basic data on the properties of thousands of chemical substances. The European Chemicals Agency then will review the chemicals, and require substitution of the most dangerous ones.