President Obama's top environmental official announced today a new push for transforming the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals that may endanger people and the environment.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson called the workings of a 1976 law "inordinately cumbersome and time-consuming." She said the administration will promote a new chemical law in Congress in the coming months.
In the meantime, Jackson said, the EPA will begin to analyze and regulate six high-profile chemicals that have raised concerns. Included are bisphenol A, found in hard, clear polycarbonate bottles, and phthalates, which are used in vinyl and cosmetics.
Also targeted are brominated flame retardants added to an array of electronics and other goods; perfluorinated compounds such as PFOA and PFOS used in manufacturing non-stick coatings and food packaging; chlorinated parafins, used in polyvinyl chloride flooring, and benzidine dyes and pigments.
Many scientists say these chemicals can mimic hormones and obstruct development of fetuses and children, as well as cause other health effects.
Jackson said the EPA is gathering information from industry on the six chemicals so the agency can assess their safety and consider what actions to take. She said the EPA may require labels on consumer products to warn of risks, which could put a damper on sales. The agency already has such authority under the existing Toxic Substances Control Act, she said.
Jackson's announcement signals a dramatic shift away from the policy of the Bush administration. Top EPA officials who testified before Congress three years ago defended the Toxic Substances Control Act as effective in safeguarding public health from industrial chemicals.
Some 80,000 chemicalssome of them widely used in consumer products--need to be assessed for safety, she said.
"As more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably anxious and confused. Many are turning to government for assurance that chemicals have been assessed using the best available science, and that unacceptable risks haven't been ignored," she said at a press conference on Tuesday.
"We know there are subtle troubling effects" on hormone systems and intellectual development, Jackson said.
Jackson made the announcement in San Francisco where she came to address a science conference on the San Francisco Bay and speak at the Commonwealth Club.
Industry officials as well as environmental health groups have been meeting with EPA scientists over the past months to come up with some common principles.
Environmental groups that have been participating in talks with the EPA and industry praised the administration for its ambitious plan.
In addition, the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, has agreed in principle to "supply some level of support" to pay for more increased study and other efforts to assess the safety of compounds.
"We understand that industry has to provide more data and a greater transparency to that data," said Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council. One of the driving forces of the industry's participation is the desire to win consumer confidence in products and to regain world leadership in chemical safety, Dooley said.
In the inventory under the current law, some 7,000 chemicals are produced or imported annually in amounts above 25,000 pounds, according to industry figures.
Only five chemicals have been banned or restricted under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Asbestos was banned in most uses, but the manufacturers challenged and won a court battle in 1989 alleging that the EPA didn't meet all the requirements of the 1976 law.
"The asbestos decision had a chilling effect," Jackson said.
In making the announcement, Jackson released a set of principles that she hoped would guide Congress in coming up with a new law.
The EPA isn't focused as much on rewriting the existing law as it is on coming up with one that would strengthen the agency's ability to protect the public, she said.
Under the plans announced Tuesday, EPA would require manufacturers to supply the necessary information to conclude that new and existing chemicals are safe and don't endanger public health or the environment.
The EPA also wants clear authority to take actions when chemicals don't meet the safety standard, although it would retain flexibility to consider sensitive populations and social benefits and costs.
Jackson said EPA and the manufacturers would assess and act on chemicals with the highest priority in a timely manner.
Representatives of the Environmental Working Group, Earthjustice and the Breast Cancer Action Fund had questions on how the new regulatory program might work. Rick Hind of Greenpeace wonders if the legislation would pre-empt state action, since some states already have taken action against several chemicals.
Both EPA and industry officials said today they wouldn't attempt to pre-empt state action at this time. The Obama administration has encouraged the states to participate while industry officials prefer a federal law to what they describe as a "patchwork" of state controls.
In 2007, the European Union began implementing the world's most restrictive chemicals law. It requires manufacturers to provide basic data on the properties of thousands of chemical substances. The European Chemicals Agency then will review the chemicals, and require substitution of the most dangerous ones.
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