What a Difference a Year Doesn't Make

A year ago (yesterday), the chemical industry’s trade association issued a set of “Principles” for TSCA reform.  They held a press conference -- along with executives from chemical companies including Dow and Albermarle as well as the heads of other trade associations for companies that use a lot of chemicals in their products, the Soap and Detergent Association and the Consumer Specialty Products Association – to tout their commitment to reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the country’s barely functioning law that has failed to protect the public from exposure to unsafe chemicals in everyday products.

Some observers, including a number of people in Washington who should have known better, accepted the industry’s avowal of support for reform at face value.  Others who took a longer view of the industry’s history vis a vis TSCA reform, and chemical policy generally, saw the chances of the leopard actually changing its spots as slim.  Unfortunately for the public, a year later, the skeptics’ view appears to have been the right one.

Last week the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Consumer Protection subcommittee held a hearing on the recently introduced legislation, the "Toxic Chemicals Safety Act" (H.R. 5820) to reform TSCA.  I wrote here about some of the key provisions of that bill, that, if enacted, would transform the country’s policies for protecting the public from unsafe toxic chemicals.

One of the witnesses at the hearing was Cal Dooley, the top lobbyist for the chemical industry in Washington, and the President of the American Chemistry Council (formerly known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association).  Mr. Dooley’s testimony was overwhelmingly negative, and in several respects was diametrically opposed in content to what the industry espoused a year ago as some of its 10 Principles for Modernizing reform.  My colleague Richard Denison from EDF has highlighted some of the key respects in which Mr. Dooley’s testimony represented a (strategic) reversal from recent industry statements on TSCA reform.

Add to the list industry’s previously stated position that TSCA “should be modernized to keep pace with advances in science and technology.”  That could have been interpreted a year ago as a hopeful sign that industry was serious about grappling with and responding to the growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating both much greater human exposure to chemicals (including in the womb) than previously understood, and greater concern about the type of impacts toxic chemicals can have on the body, individually and cumulatively.

But in his written testimony for the hearing, Mr. Dooley not only expressed opposition to consideration of the cumulative effect of exposure to multiple chemicals in seeking to determine whether exposure to those chemicals is safe.  He professed ignorance (although he didn’t call it that exactly) about even the existence of analysis of cumulative impacts of exposure to multiple chemicals and suggested that there was no ability “in science” to even attempt such an analysis at this time.   Here is a quote from Mr. Dooley’s testimony:

“In addition to aggregate exposure, [this refers to factoring in the various sources of exposure to the same chemical, which he also disparaged in his testimony] HR 5820 also requires EPA to consider the ‘cumulative effects of exposure to chemical substances or mixtures in making its safety determination.’  The term ‘cumulative effects’ is undefined and at present there is neither sufficient data nor a sufficient process in science to conduct a proper analysis of cumulative risk.” [the italics are mine]

Although the point might seem wonky or arcane, it is important to the debate, because it goes to the heart of how we assess whether exposure to a toxic chemical (or multiple toxic chemicals) is safe. So whether such an assessment is within the realm of understanding of current science, or even possible to consider in a regulatory context, makes a difference in how reform should be written.  As it happens, a whole class of toxic chemicals – pesticides – are currently regulated with a requirement to consider both aggregate and cumulative exposures, under a different law than TSCA.  Since 1996, when Congress unanimously (yes, you read that right) enacted the Food Quality Protection Act, EPA has been required to consider the impacts of aggregate and cumulative exposure to chemicals in assessing the safety of individual pesticides.  While it was a relatively cutting edge requirement at the time Congress adopted it, EPA has since responded to the challenge.  The agency published a 90 page guidance for its staff on how to analyze cumulative impacts of exposure to pesticides.  And the agency has conducted risk assessments of the cumulative impacts of exposure to at least four separate classes of pesticides: organophosphates, carbamates, triazines, and chloroacetanilides.  All of those documents are readily available from EPA here.  And EPA isn’t the only agency that has analyzed the risks posed by cumulative exposure to multiple chemicals. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has assessed the health risks of several occupations, including painters, printers, petroleum refiners and firefighters, based upon the exposure to multiple chemicals in those jobs, as well as groups of chemicals including petroleum solvents.

Of course, the science and practice of conducting cumulative risk assessment is not static, it continues to develop and mature.  The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report, “Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment: The Tasks Ahead,” in response to a request from the EPA, with recommendations on how the agency could assess the risk of exposure to multiple phthalates, and a separate NAS report, “Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment,” containing broader recommendations to the agency on how to update and improve its use of risk assessment featured a whole chapter on this question, titled “Implementing Cumulative Risk Assessment.”

While a complete set of data may not be available in every instance to conduct a cumulative risk assessment (although if the provisions in the new bill that require industry to provide a minimum set of data about their chemicals to EPA and the public are enacted into law, that will certainly help), that doesn’t mean that the ability to conduct a cumulative risk assessment is stopped dead in its tracks. Under the Food Quality Protection Act, EPA is required to consider “available information” on cumulative impacts, the same requirement that appears in the TSCA reform bill, and the National Academy of Sciences recommends using default assumptions to fill-in for remaining data gaps.  

So for the head of the chemical manufacturers’ trade association to tell Congress that the ability to assess cumulative exposure to chemicals isn’t possible, and isn’t already being done, suggests either that the industry is now abandoning its year-old Principles and they are no longer operative, or that it was political expediency that led to their introduction a year ago, and that they were never operative in the first place.  Either way, we are in the same place we were last year (and have been for the previous 30-plus years): the chemical industry is standing in the way of meaningful reform to protect us from unsafe chemicals, and using bogus arguments and tissue-thin excuses to do so.