Changes to TSCA Inventory Update Rule Could Help OSHA, Too

by Matt Shudtz

August 13, 2010

On Wednesday, EPA announced its intention to revise (pdf) the TSCA Inventory Update Rule (IUR). The TSCA Inventory is the official list of chemicals in commerce, and the IUR is the regulation that requires companies to submit production and use data to EPA to ensure the Inventory accurately represents all of the chemicals out there. This week's announcement marks the second time in ten years that EPA has decided the IUR needs improvement, based on agency staff’s efforts to regulate toxic chemicals using the data available to them. 

As Dan Rosenberg points out over at Switchboard, the changes are mostly good, although EPA certainly could have gone further on a few fronts. For one, EPA has expressed some interest in changing the IUR’s requirements for reporting occupational exposures—changes that would be a huge improvement—but hasn’t yet decided exactly how to implement the changes.

Under current regulations, we don’t get much information about occupational exposures to toxic chemicals. In addition to total production volume data, companies have to describe the total number of workers likely to be exposed to a chemical (provided in a range), the maximum concentration of a chemical when it’s sent off site (or when it’s reacted on-site), and the physical form of the chemical. For chemicals produced or imported in quantities greater than 300,000 pounds per year, existing regulations mandate disclosure of some additional information about processing and use, but not enough to significantly improve our understanding of worker exposures. That’s in fact rather basic data, and leaves out the details that would allow for better risk management, including information on specific worker tasks and potential exposures. According to EPA, the information submitted under these regulations was so useless that the agency “could develop only qualitative exposure characterizations with relative ranking of low, medium, or high for characterizing potential exposures to various populations.” 

Workers are on the front lines of chemical exposure and are typically exposed at much higher concentrations and for longer periods of time than the general population. OSHA does some sampling during health inspections and has a few standards that require monitoring, but the IUR presents an opportunity for a more comprehensive and systematic approach to gathering information about workers’ exposures—at least at a screening level. EPA has not proposed changing the precision with which companies have to report worker exposures, but it is requesting comments on a number of other data points that will paint a clearer picture of the occupational landscape. They include:

  • Specific worker activities during which workers may be exposed to a chemical;
  • The duration and frequency of worker exposure during each activity;
  • The form and concentration of the chemical during each activity;
  • The engineering controls and personal protective equipment employed during each activity; and
  • Worker exposure monitoring.

OSHA chief David Michaels recently circulated a letter to his staff that describes the agency's process for writing new occupational health standards as “unworkable.”  But at the same time, he expressed confidence that new collaborative efforts between OSHA and other agencies, including EPA, could improve the situation. Here we have a chance to bring that hope to fruition. EPA doesn’t yet seem to have a solid plan, though. Not only is EPA asking for the public’s input about the content of the occupational exposure data requirements, it’s also not sure whether it should collect the information for all chemicals through the IUR, or by another means entirely—perhaps through a TSCA § 8(a) rulemaking or a § 11(c) subpoena.

Industry will, of course, complain that the paperwork burden is too much to bear and that the IUR isn’t the appropriate avenue for collecting all of this exposure information. EPA freely admits that new data requirements related to occupational, environmental, and consumer exposure could almost double the burden of the IUR program. But gathering the information through a different process would simply open the door for dilatory litigation by the industries affected by each new rulemaking. In the meantime, EPA and OSHA staff would be right where they are now: holding a list of toxic chemicals, wishing they had the exposure data that would enable them to make good risk management decisions to protect workers, consumers, and the environment. To get to the stage where the two agencies can better manage toxic chemical risks, EPA needs to act now—it needs to include all of the proposed exposure information in the updated IUR.

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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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