Senate Hearing on Toxic Chemicals Legislation

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, and Environmental Health held a joint hearing yesterday, entitled “Oversight Hearing on the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act.”

The Senators heard testimony from Lisa Jackson, head of EPA; John Stephenson, Director of Natural Resources and Environment for GAO; and Linda Birnbaum, head of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program.

Administrator Jackson argued that the Toxic Substances Control Act is in urgent need of reform because of "troubling gaps" in knowledge about many chemicals that have come into wide use since. She asserted that manufacturers of various “grandfathered” chemicals weren’t required to develop and produce the data on toxicity and exposure that are needed to properly and fully assess potential risks. [In a bit of drama, EPA’s Jackson was asked about some of the troubling emails recently disclosed about the apparent concerted effort of some to quash any scientific dissent to an aggressive view of global warming.]

The American Chemistry Council has noted that updating the legislation in certain respects made good sense, favoring a comprehensive approach, rather than the current patchwork of state and federal laws governing chemicals.

GAO’s representative testified that TSCA generally places the burden of obtaining data about existing chemicals on EPA rather than on chemical companies. For example, the act requires EPA to demonstrate certain health or environmental risks before it can require companies to further test their chemicals. As a result, EPA does not routinely assess the risks of the over 83,000 chemicals already in use. Moreover, TSCA does not require chemical companies to test the approximately 700 new chemicals introduced into commerce each year for toxicity, and companies generally do not voluntarily perform such testing.

Dr. Birnbaum encouraged Congress to call for utilization of the new kind of toxicological testing that is less expensive and also gives an improved understanding of the actual effects of chemicals on humans. Toxicology is advancing from a mostly observational science using disease-specific models, she said, to a better, predictive science focused upon a broad inclusion of target-specific, mechanism-based, biological observations. This means using alternative assays targeting the key pathways, molecular events, or processes linked to disease or injury, and incorporating them into a research and testing framework.

Democratic legislators, including Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) have called for increased requirements for chemicals testing, and that “It's time to sound the alarm.” In an attempt to respond to industry concerns, Lautenberg argued that stronger regulations would somehow protect chemical companies from product liability suits—an ironic assertion at best as Democrats actively work to overturn express preemption for medical devices and extol the Wyeth v. Levine decision restricting implied preemption of drugs.

Of particular concern to readers of MassTortDefense would be efforts to eliminate the current risk-based review system under TSCA and force EPA to use the so-called precautionary principle.

It seems more supportable that any overhaul of TSCA should include the notion that scientific reviews must use data and methods based on the best available science and risk-based assessment; must include cost-benefit considerations for the private-sector and consumers; must protect proprietary business information, and should logically prioritize reviews for existing chemicals.

 

GAO Adds To Critiques of FDA

The Government Accountability Office issued a report last week that listed the FDA as a "high-risk" area of the federal government. The GAO said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was being hampered by globalization, more complex products, and laws that have made it more difficult for the FDA to ensure the safety of pharmaceuticals, biologic drugs, and medical devices. GAO says its work examining a variety of issues at FDA echoes the conclusions reached by others (think IOM) that the agency is facing significant challenges that compromise its ability to protect Americans from unsafe and ineffective products. FDA needs to, among other things, improve the data it uses to manage the foreign drug inspection program, conduct more inspections of foreign establishments, systematically prioritize and track promotional materials for review, and adopt management tools to ensure that drug sponsors comply with regulations on the presentation of clinical trial results.
 

The perception of the FDA and its ability to do an effective job is a crucial underlying feature in product liability litigation involving regulated drugs, devices, and food products. Jurors’ perceptions of the agency can affect a myriad of issues and themes the defense may wish to present.

Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) asserts that the issue is a need for more resources for the FDA, to keep drugs safe. The agency “is being asked to do more than it can do” with current resources, the trade group says. Specifically, FDA needs more resources to conduct foreign inspections so the drug supply can be kept safe. PhRMA also said that FDA needs more resources to modernize because, for example, the agency still looks at clinical trial information on paper.