November 13, 2007 The Pump Handle 2Comment

At last week’s annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA), the organization adopted more than a dozen new policy resolutions which will guide its work into the future.  Included among them was a call for “Congress to fundamentally restructure the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA)” so that more attention is paid to the toxic and ecotoxic properties of chemicals in commerce.

 APHA’s policy resolution on TSCA* describes the limitations of the existing law, echoing assessments made by other groups.  In 2005 and 2006, for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report and testimony noting:

“EPA has used its authorities to require testing of fewer than 200 of the 62,000 chemicals in commerce…  EPA officials say the act’s legal standards for demonstrating unreasonable risk are so high that they have generally discouraged EPA from using its authorities to ban or restrict the manufacture or use of exisiting chemicals.  Since Congress enacted TSCA in 1976, EPA has issued regulations to ban or limit the production of only five existing chemicals or groups of chemicals.  …EPA’s reviews of new chemicals provide only limited assurance that health and environmental risks are identified because TSCA does not require companies to test chemicals before they notify EPA of their intent to manfucture the chemicals.”

The lead author of the GAO report, later stated in an interview for Environmental Health Perspectives:

“Many of the changes recommended by GAO are simple word changes, such as requiring that the EPA show a chemical poses a ‘significant’ rather than ‘unreasonable’ risk, or that it ‘may’ rather than ‘will’ present health risks.  ‘It sounds small, but in practice, it makes a huge difference.'” (here)

Other calls for reform of TSCA have come from the National Academy of Sciences(1), U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (2), and former senior EPA officials (3).  The APHA policy resolutions recommends improvements to TSCA including:

  • a chemical phase-out plan for persistent bioactive toxins;
  • collaboration with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to use data generated through EPA’s High Production Volume Chemicals Program to evaluate data on exposed worker populations;
  • provisions to motivate investment in “green chemistry”; and
  • a sunset provision for confidential business information claims with respect to information of public health importance.

Although major TSCA reform legislation has not been proposed, the public health community is now poised to be a player at the table whenever congressional leaders decide to act.


*Note: a final copy edited version of all the policy resolutions adopted at APHA 2007 Annual Meeting will be posted in the near future on the APHA website, and will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Public Health.  This marked-up version was the final document adopted on November 6, 2007 by APHA’s Governing Council.

(1) National Academy of Sciences’ Commisson on Life Sciences. Toxicology Testing: Strategies to Determine Needs and Priorities. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1984.

(2) U.S. Office of Technology Assessment.  Screening and Testing of Chemicals in Commerce. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1995.

(3) Lynn Goldman, MD, MPH a professor of environmental health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

2 thoughts on “Public Health Calls for TSCA Reform

  1. When TSCA was passed, concern was focused on chemicals not already in use. There was a huge effort to list chemicals already in use, which would be exempt from PMN’s and SNUR’s.

    Some of us argued that the important “untested” chemicals were already in use, mostly in large amounts. The failure of EPA in administering TSCA was the failure to address existing chemicals.

    A UAW petition in 1993 for testing of metalworking fluids – which cited a series of studies which identified carcinogenicity and respiratory effects – was ignored. EPA’s verbally stated rationale was that if it were a carcinogen, MWF would be regulated to the lowest feasible level, and so no testing was needed.

  2. As usual, Frank Mirer, adds valuable information which was missing from my post. TSCA made a distinction between chemicals which were already in commerce in 1979 (about 62,000) and new chemicals which are subject to PMN (Pre-Manufacture Notice) requirements and SNURs (Significant New Use Rules). There was already a HUGE gap in hazard information for existing chemicals, and TSCA did nothing to address that gap. The law’s statutory language, “unreasonable risk” and “will present health effects” made issuing testing rules for existing chemicals impossible. Thus, the reason that only five compounds (i.e., PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin, asbestos, and Cr(VI) have been regulated by EPA under TSCA.

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