Federal report says EPA falling short in ensuring chemical safety

Given a new approach, federal environmental officials have made progress in managing toxic chemicals under existing laws, but whether that means they will ultimately ensure the safety of chemicals is “unclear,” a government report has found.

The report, by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, noted that without improvements in the process, the Environmental Protection Agency “could be investing valuable resources, time and effort without being certain that its efforts will bring the agency closer to achieving its goal of ensuring the safety of chemicals.”

Earlier today, U.S. Senators Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) applauded the release of the report and said it demonstrated a need for new legislation that would better arm the EPA to evaluate and regulate the chemicals.

Lautenberg and Gillibrand have introduced legislation that would update TSCA — the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is the only major environmental law from the 1970s that has not be updated, officials say.

“This report makes it clear that the EPA's hands are tied when it comes to protecting Americans from toxic chemicals found in everyday consumer products. Despite EPA’s best intentions and efforts, the agency lacks the necessary authority to quickly collect health and safety data or take actions when serious risks are identified,” Lautenberg said in a press release.

Lautenberg, who has announced this term will be his last, had identified TSCA reform as his signature goal for his final years as a senator.

“It’s outrageous that everything from car seats to my son's dishware could be leaching hormone disrupting or cancer causing chemicals, but the EPA is virtually powerless to regulate them,” said Gillibrand, who has two young boys. “We need to do better.”

The legislators noted that under current law, the EPA is severely limited in its ability to require safety testing for chemicals or limit harmful uses of toxic chemicals. As a result, EPA has only been able to require testing for roughly 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States, and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances since TSCA was first enacted in 1976, they said.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, supports TSCA reform in general. But it is looking to more industry-friendly legislation being worked on by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). That measure "will improve safety and promote public confidence in our nation’s chemicals management system, while also enabling U.S. industries to innovate and compete in the global economy," said chemistry council president Cal Dooley in a press release.

The Government Accountability Office report noted that the EPA is hampered in its efforts to get toxicity and exposure data. “The results of EPA’s data collection activities, in most cases, have yet to be realized, and it may take several years before EPA obtains much of the data it is seeking,” the report said.

Even then, it could take more than a decade for the agency to complete assessments on 83 chemicals it has identified as priorities, the report said.

Several EPA officials have testified in Congressional hearings that they do not have the appropriate tools to ensure the safety of many chemicals in wide use today.

The EPA also submitted written comments to the Government Accountability Office stating “that it will not be able to meet the goal of ensuring chemical safety now and into the future without legislative reform,” the report noted.

Lautenberg and Gillibrand have launched a “Chemicals of Concern” media campaign on Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness.