The US regulatory system for chemicals is not adequately protecting human health, and an overhaul is urgently needed, according to recommendations made this week by a group of environmental and health scientists.
In a paper published Thursday in Environmental Science and Technology, the group of 12 researchers criticized the nation’s chemical regulatory system for operating in ways that allow farmers, consumers and others to be exposed to unsafe chemicals on a regular basis.
Adoption of a new, “essential-use” approach is required, the researchers said. The framework proposed asks governments and businesses to assess chemicals using three questions: 1) “Is the function of the chemical necessary for the product?” 2) “Is the use of the chemical the safest feasible option?” and 3) “Is use of the chemical in the product justified because such use is necessary for health, safety, or the functioning of society?”
Current laws and practices employed by the US Environmental Protection Agency essentially require that a chemical must be proven unsafe to be barred from the market. The proposed system would flip that on its head, similar to the theory of the “precautionary principle,” which considers that a product should be proven safe to be approved.
“The current system of managing chemicals is broken,” said Carol Kwiatkowski, an author of the paper and a senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental health advocacy group. “The essential-use approach is the first feasible solution that will actually protect people and the environment before extensive damage is done.”
Co-authors include researchers from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the University of Massachusetts, the University of Toronto, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group.
More than 350,000 chemicals and mixtures of chemicals have been registered for production and use, according to a global review published in 2020. Environmental health advocates say not enough is known about the possible adverse effects these chemicals are having on the environment and human health. Many are clearly dangerous for humans exposed to them, including certain types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Some chemicals on the market in the US have been shown to disrupt hormones and impact reproductive health, cause cancers and other diseases and interfere with neurological development, among other harms.
Not a new idea
The essential-use approach was first introduced as part of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which regulated the use of ozone-depleting substances. Many scientists believe the Montreal Protocol has been responsible for progress in protecting Earth’s ozone layer.
As part of the proposed approach, the authors also urge governments and businesses to share information and data about new chemicals so as to expedite decision-making, and to broaden the process for defining whether new chemicals should be designated as “chemicals of concern.”
Researchers say the essential-use approach could be helpful not only for governments but also for businesses trying to determine which chemicals to use in their products.
“Manufacturers and retailers could make a significant contribution toward protecting human health and the environment by adopting this approach along their supply chains,” said Simona Balan, another author on the paper and a member of the Safer Consumer Products program at the California DTSC.
Solving the regulatory crisis is an environmental justice issue, according to Balan.
“Most of the impacts associated with the manufacturing and use of chemicals of concern are experienced by vulnerable communities,” she said. “If the essential-use approach were adopted more broadly… that would significantly reduce the use of chemicals of concern and their impacts on vulnerable communities.”
A “backwards” approach
According to the authors, there are multiple reasons for the nation’s inefficient chemicals regulatory system.
“Governments don’t have the resources to assess every single [chemical],” said Kwiatkowski. It often takes years or even decades for government agencies to determine the safety of even one chemical, even if that chemical is already used in consumer products, she said.
Additionally, the authors write, it takes an “inordinately high degree of proof of risk” to persuade regulatory bodies to take action for specific chemicals.
“Our system assumes that they’re safe until proven otherwise,” said Kwiatkowski. “[They’re] going about it backwards.”
The essential-use approach could be especially useful for preventing companies from substituting known harmful chemicals with new, potentially dangerous formulations, according to Balan.
The American Chemistry Council, the nation’s largest trade association for the chemical industry, did not respond to questions about how the essential-use approach would impact chemical manufacturers, but stated in an email to The New Lede that “consumers should feel confident that the products of chemistry are subject to some of the most stringent federal laws and regulations in the world…”
“We support strong science and risk-based regulations that are protective of human health and our environment, including the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) aimed at modernizing and strengthening our federal chemical regulatory system,” said the ACC.
“Chemical manufacturers are understandably going to argue that all uses of their chemicals are essential,” said Kwiatkowski. “That’s what they do.”