Updated approach to regulating chemicals is “urgently needed,” say scientists

By Grace van Deelen

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 one of three possible 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.