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To Protect the Public Health, New Chemicals Must Be Found Safe Before Use | Commentary

Public health leaders have long understood the power of prevention to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including those linked to exposure to chemicals. We know there are billions of pounds of chemicals used in common products sitting on retail shelves in every town in America today.

Most people assume the government makes sure such chemicals are safe before they go into such products. In fact, no one has the mandate to ensure the safety of new chemicals before they are allowed on the market. That is one reason why potentially dangerous chemicals are in your home right now — in everything from furniture to clothing to cosmetics. Commonly used chemicals are linked to certain cancers, Parkinson’s disease, developmental disabilities and other chronic and costly diseases.

Right now, members of Congress are considering legislation to update the chemical safety law and they should put strong measures in place to protect people from exposure to potential toxins. Congress should require new chemicals are found to be safe — before they are allowed on the market.

Legislation to update the flawed Toxic Substances Control Act is advancing through both chambers of Congress. The House recently passed a bill, and the Senate is poised to do the same within the next few weeks. But the bills differ in several important ways, including in their treatment of new chemicals. In fact, the House TSCA reform legislation would leave in place the current law’s weak approach to new chemicals. That would be a mistake and a missed opportunity.

Every year, 500 to 1,000 new chemicals come onto the market. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not require companies to submit a basic set of safety data before allowing a chemical on the market. Here in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency cannot even require testing without first showing potential risk or high exposure, a real Catch-22. TSCA puts the burden on the EPA to raise any red flags within 90 days of receiving a company’s “pre-manufacture notification” or the chemical can automatically enter the market and be produced and used by anyone as they see fit.

In the face of these constraints, resourceful staff at the EPA have done what they can with limited tools, using chemical structural information and computer modeling to try to predict hazards. Yet, those tools have significant limitations: They are largely reliant on the limited information available on chemicals with structures similar to the new chemical under scrutiny. They don’t work at all for some classes of chemicals. And there are no reliable tools for predicting more complex, chronic health problems tied to chemical exposure, such as reproductive or neurological toxicity.

The Senate’s “Lautenberg Act” would require the EPA to make an affirmation safety finding as a condition for market entry, rather than allowing manufacturing to begin by default if the EPA does not raise a concern during the 90-day review. In other words, the system shifts from a passive to an active one. If the EPA doesn’t have adequate information to make a safety finding, the bill authorizes the agency to suspend review, and importantly, it gives the EPA the ability to order testing in order to get the information it needs to make a sound decision.

Equally important, under the Lautenberg Act, the EPA’s review of new chemicals would at last be grounded in a direct mandate from Congress. During the 1990’s, when I was responsible for toxics as assistant administrator at the EPA, the Office of Management and Budget often looked skeptically at the need to maintain funding for a program without a congressional mandate. While the program appears safe for the time being, there’s no assurance that future administrations will see the same value in the program and support its budget.

Today, as dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, I believe it is critical for the EPA to have a clear mandate to review new chemicals and the authority to restrict them. Congress should invest today in strong public health measures to protect us from harmful chemicals in everyday products that we all rely on. Now that’s a step that would lead to better health for generations to come.

Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MPH, is the Michael and Lori Milken Dean of Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

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