REACH-ing for a Better Policy on Toxics

by Matt Shudtz

Dan Rosenberg of NRDC has an excellent new post up on Switchboard that lays out some ideas for reforming U.S. chemical policies in the wake of the Bush Administration. The ideas include improving the risk assessment process EPA uses to develop its IRIS database, strengthening chemical security measures, re-invigorating right-to-know policies under the Toxic Release Inventory, stepping up research into risks posed by BPA and nanotech, and reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to follow the European Union’s REACH program.

 

Each reform is important, but I want to comment on the last one. Amending TSCA so that U.S. chemical policy aligns with the Europeans’ precautionary approach is a great way to start closing the data gap on toxic chemicals. Every year, hundreds of new chemicals enter the market, and REACH-style testing requirements would be a good way to ensure that EPA staff have meaningful information about the potential risks posed by those new chemicals. But what happens once that information gets to EPA? Who has access to it?

 

CPR’s Saving Science report has answers to these questions. I’ll outline the solutions here, but check out the report for much more detail.

 

To begin, broad information availability should be a primary goal of any TSCA amendments. If EPA can share risk information freely with state regulatory agencies, foreign agencies, and public health researchers, they are collectively more likely to develop regulatory policies that adequately protect human health and the environment. In addition, open access to chemical companies’ risk studies will enable other researchers to better coordinate their work to fill the most policy-relevant gaps in risk information.

 

To promote wider information-sharing, CPR’s Saving Science report suggests four reforms:

  1. The classes of information subject to confidential business information (CBI) protection should be explicitly limited;
  2. All information that is submitted to the government and alleged to be worthy of trade secret/CBI protection should be accompanied by a thorough explanation of why such protection is warranted;
  3. In the rare instances where the government sequesters trade secrets or CBI, protections should “sunset” unless submitters justify the extension of protection; and
  4. The Executive Branch should reestablish a “presumption of disclosure” under FOIA.

As the European Chemical Agency has found, the precautionary approach to chemical regulation produces a lot of information. The six-month REACH pre-registration period ended on Monday (12/1/2008) and chemical companies submitted 2.2 million registrations covering over 100,000 chemicals.

 

If EPA were to take on a similar information-gathering program, it would be wise to share that information with as many stakeholders as possible. For one thing, expanded access would allow more researchers and policy experts to critique EPA’s regulatory decisions. These independent assessments could improve regulation of individual chemicals to protect human health and the environment. Second, the precautionary approach still relies on the standard, one-chemical-at-a-time risk assessment process. Broad access to this information might spur additional research into the risks posed by the simultaneous exposure to multiple chemicals that we experience as a matter of modern life. That research could help us better manage the risks posed by chemicals that interact synergistically in our bodies or in the environment.
 



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