Toxic Chemicals Policy: Change Needed Here

This is my first blog post for NRDC, and with change in the air, it seems like a good time to be writing about what NRDC, our members, colleagues and allies hope will be a wholesale change in the way we address the health and environmental risks posed by toxic chemicals - in our air, water, land, and in our food, food containers and thousands of consumer products.  And there is no question that such change is badly needed.

The Bush administration's eight years have featured both persistent efforts to weaken existing protections from exposure to toxic chemicals, including curtailing the public's right to know about chemical releases from industrial facilities; and steadfast opposition to taking meaningful steps to address current or emerging concerns related to chemical exposure.  The coming months will require a dual effort to restore protections recently lost, and move forward with badly needed initiatives to address our nation's chemical policy. 

Today a number of environmental groups including NRDC released a report with recommendations for the next administration on priority issues that merit serious attention.  In the area of health and toxics, the report outlines a number of steps that need to be taken, both to reverse Bush Administration policies, and to affirmatively address current and emerging issues.  Denying reality, ignoring the future, standing in the way of addressing serious threats to public health, these have been the hallmarks of the Administration's approach to chemical policy over the past eight years.  Here are a few examples:

Determining the health risks posed by toxic chemicals

Throughout the 1990s, the mantra of polluters and their supporters in Congress and conservative think-tanks was the need for "sound science" to guide regulatory decisions.  Over the past eight years, we have seen repeatedly that "sound science" is a euphemism for censored science, ignored science, industry-funded science, and political interference with science.  A perfect example is the Bush Administration's recent changes to the EPA process for assessing the health hazards posed by toxic chemicals.  While it has an arcane name - the Integrated Risk Information System, or "IRIS" - it is a cornerstone program that guides the federal government, as well as many state and foreign governments, in setting health standards for exposure to toxic chemicals in our air and water, and for setting cleanup levels at toxic waste sites.  Earlier this year, the Bush Administration revised the IRIS process to provide multiple opportunities for the most polluting federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as the White House via the Office of Management and Budget, to interfere with EPA's scientists tasked with determining the levels at which toxic chemicals pose a health hazard.  In keeping with the Administration's preferred practice of reducing the public's right to know about health risks of chemicals, as well as political decision-making, the new policy ensures the "advice" and "consultation" EPA receives from agencies with an interest in weak health standards remain behind closed doors, and shielded from public scrutiny.  My colleague Dr. Jennifer Sass has written extensively on this subject on her excellent blog.  Reversing the Bush Administration's changes to the IRIS program, and taking additional steps to ensure the program's transparency and integrity, should be a top priority for the next EPA administrator.

Chemical security

Many people remember the human catastrophe that occurred in Bhopal, India in 1984, when a cloud of methyl isocyanate leaked from a chemical plant, killing thousands of people and permanently injurying thousands more.  Those who are not familiar with what happened in Bhopal should take some time to learn about it.  For one thing, people in Bhopal are still suffering from the harm caused by that toxic cloud almost twenty-five years ago.  For another, it was the impetus for a number of environmental policies adopted in this country in its aftermath, and is still an important touchstone for guiding us on what kinds of policies are needed to increase public protection, whether from chemical accidents, or the potentially deadly results of a terrorist attack on a facility storing hazardous chemicals. 

The risks to the public posed by the accidental release of certain toxic chemicals are not just a concern for people in faraway lands.  Thousands of facilities across the country store or use chemicals that could be extremely harmful to the public if released.  

Particularly since 9/11, the potential for a terrorist attack on a chemical facility has loomed large in the concerns of many national security experts.  Yet since 9/11 the Bush Administration has repeatedly sided with the oil and chemical industries to block strong legislation to ensure that the nation's chemical facilities were taking the necessary steps to ensure safety to the greatest extent possible.  Moreover, the Administration attempted to block states from adopting stronger protections than the weak measures the Administration worked out with industry.  The Bush-industry approach is set to expire in 2009, and adoption of strong chemical security measures to protect the public from the deadly effects of a terrorist attack on our chemical facilities must be a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Right to Know and the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)

In the wake of the Bhopal tragedy, Congress enacted the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), which contained several provisions to help emergency responders and local officials to be informed and prepared about the potential risks posed by toxic chemicals stored on-site at the nation's chemical facilities.  The law also created the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) which established the public's right to know about toxic chemicals that are being stored and released in their communities.  This simple law, which doesn't set standards or control emissions, but ensures people have information about what is going on at the chemical facilities in their communities, has been extremely effective in assisting local communities in getting companies to reduce their chemical releases.  Few companies want to be at the top of a list of local or national emitters of toxic chemicals to our air, water or land.  Since its creation, the principle of the public's right to know about toxic chemical releases (and other chemical-related matters) has been accepted across a broad political spectrum, and the Toxics Release Inventory has been an essential part of the toolbox for many community activists seeking to protect their families from exposure to dangerous chemicals. 

Unfortunately, the principle of the public's right to know, and the great success of the TRI program were not at all respected by the Bush Administration or its political appointees at EPA.  In 2006, EPA weakened the TRI program by raising the amount of chemicals a facility must release before it is required to provide detailed reporting to the public.  According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 3,500 facilities across the country were absolved of their previous reporting requirements by EPA's rule change.  What's more, opposition to the proposal was overwhelming.  OMB Watch reviewed the public comments and determined that EPA received 122,386 (99.97%) of comments strongly opposed to the proposed changes, and only 34 (00.03%) comments expressing some degree of support for the changes. The House of Representatives -- led at the time by Dennis Hastert and Tom Delay - voted to prevent EPA from spending any funds to finalize their plan to weaken the reporting requirements (because the spending restriction was part of an appropriations bill that never passed Congress, it never took effect and EPA finalized the rule). The weakening of the TRI program was a perfect illustration of the contempt EPA's current political leaders hold for the public and the right to know principle. It should be reversed immediately.

Bisphenol A

The scientific evidence of potential harms caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals has increased dramatically over the past eight years. But the Food and Drug Administration continues to side with the chemical industry (and rely upon industry-funded studies) to reaffirm the safety of one of these chemicals, Bisphenol A (or BPA), in our food supply.  BPA is used as a liner in many food containers, a use for which it was approved in the 1960s.  It has now been shown in dozens of scientific studies to be associated with a range of health effects at levels at which human exposure is common.  A significant source of that exposure is almost certainly the leaching from food packaging.  My colleague Dr. Sarah Janssen has written several excellent posts about the health concerns raised by BPA and other endocrine disrupting chemicals (including phthalates) and the failure of FDA and other agencies to forthrightly address those concerns.  I encourage you to read them.  At this time, the FDA is widely recognized as a damaged and demoralized agency.  Restoring the agency to the path of protecting the public, including from exposure to dangerous chemicals in food - presumably part of its core mission - must be a priority for the next Administration.


Although it has yet to gain widespread public attention, the rapid development of nano-technology, (the use of microscopic particles that have unique properties and a host of potential uses - many of them beneficial) poses serious challenges for addressing potential threats to public (and especially worker) health and the environment.  The Administration's anti-protection ideology has led to an irresponsible policy of inaction that is not sustainable if the many promises of nanotechnology are to be realized.  My NRDC colleague Dr. Jennifer Sass, and Richard Denison of EDF, have written about this issue extensively, and the folks at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies have issued a series of excellent reports on the topic.  For people who want to save the planet, and do it in a way that also protects the people, working to ensure that nanotechnologies are safe is critical.

Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

Many of the challenges posed by how to address the potential risks of some types or uses of nanotechnologies are subsets of the larger question how to address the potential risks posed by the tens of thousands of chemicals currently authorized for use in today's marketplace, and the new chemicals that enter the stream of commerce each year.  Few outside of the chemical industry will argue that the current system is working well and doesn't need a major overhaul.  In fact, Europe fully recognized this reality and has now begun implementing a new EU-wide chemicals policy known as REACH which stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical Substances.  Among the most fundamental principles of REACH is that, rather than presuming that chemicals are safe, until regulators with weak authority and inadequate resources can prove otherwise, the burden should be on chemical producers and distributors to prove that chemicals to be used in the stream of commerce are safe, or their use - with some exceptions - should be restricted or banned altogether. 

That change in thinking is needed here in the United States, where our own toxics law, the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) has foundered for years.  Let's put it this way, when a law designed to protect the public from dangerous chemicals is so onerous and so restrictive of EPA's authority that the agency can't ban the use of asbestos in most products, a new approach is necessary.  REACH may provide some guidance for how Congress and the next Administration approach the reform of TSCA.

Roll up your sleeves, there's a lot of work to be done

I've only discussed a few of the health priorities discussed in today's report.  I urge those of you who are interested in the issue of toxic chemicals, environmental and public health, and policy (including politics) to take a look at the full list, get up to speed on the issues that interest you most, and get involved.  There is plenty of work that needs to be done (and there will be plenty of opposition from the oil and chemical industries, as well as others). The more people who add their voices and advocacy skills to the efforts to protect the public; ensure safe products, rely upon real science-based decisions, and defend the public's right to know, the better for all of us.

The chemical industry spends a great deal of money on advertising to remind the public how vital chemicals are to our modern society.  They would like to frame the argument as one in which you are either for chemicals and their beneficial contribution to society, or you are opposed to all chemicals or plastics, and therefore can't be taken seriously if your concern is limited to unsafe chemicals in kids' toys and baby formula; or rocket fuel, solvents, or fuel additives in our drinking water; or formaldehyde in building supplies; or pesticides blowing into school yards; or endocrine disrupters and nanoparticles in our bodies. It is a false choice that won't fool the public, and hopefully won't cow Congress or the next Administration as they grapple with the enormous challenges of developing policies and ensuring protections for our food, water, and products for the coming decades.

The new Administration and the new Congress cannot be counted on to take the steps necessary to address the threats to public health and the environment posed by toxic chemicals without the strong encouragement of the public, their constituents.  As bad as the Bush administration has been - and it has been terrible in virtually area of toxic chemicals policy - the next Administration cannot simply rest on being "better than Bush."  The standard for judging the next Administration (and future administration's) must be - have they taken the necessary actions to protect the public and the environment from dangerous chemicals.  Now is a time for anticipation and optimism, but reality will intrude soon enough, and that's when the real work begins.

The Green Group report being released today is not a comprehensive account of the agencies that need to be reformed (or rescued) or the policies that need to be reversed or the protections that need to be adopted.  Two important agencies that are not covered in the report, but deserve attention and support from the new Administration and Congress, are the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.  If this turns out to be more than a one-time venture into the world of blogging, I'll discuss these two agencies, and track the progress of issues discussed here, and other priorities in today's report, in future posts.