The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health held a hearing earlier this month entitled, “Current Science on Public Exposures to Toxic Chemicals.” Readers from the chemical and energy industries in particular will want to take note of the discussion.
Chairman Lautenberg (D.N.J.) opined that TSCA fails to give EPA the tools it needs to protect against unsafe chemicals.He claimed that in three decades EPA has tested only 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals in the products people use every day. He mentioned unnamed “studies” that allegedly have found that as much as five percent of cancers, ten percent of neuro-behavioral disorders and 30 percent of asthma cases in children are associated with hazardous chemicals. That is why, he said, he will soon introduce a bill that will overhaul our nation’s chemical laws, with the “simple goal” to force chemical makers to prove that their products are safe before they end up in a store.
This bill would fall into place with the ideas of other proponents of radical reform and supporters of the so-called precautionary principle. Common sense would suggest that principles for any regulatory or statutory changes to TSCA should be based on the best available science, including risk assessment; must include cost-benefit considerations; must protect proprietary information; and must prioritize reviews for existing chemicals. Senator Lautenberg’s notion would encourage litigation, allow for activist rather than government enforcement, and would compel unnecessary product substitution that will further damage our weak economy. Indeed, it would harm small and medium-sized companies and could harm innovation.
Other witnesses at the hearing included Steve Owens, Assistant Administrator, Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances Environmental Protection Agency; Dr. Henry Falk of the CDC; and Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences.
A number of witnesses also talked about bio-monitoring, the concept to potentially identify the concentration of chemicals actually taken up by the human body and the metabolic fate of those chemicals; to identify susceptible populations or particular at-risk groups (e.g. genetic polymorphisms) for chemical toxicity; and to inform discussions regarding levels of exposure consistent with no adverse effects (thresholds). However, bio-monitoring cannot eliminate potential confounders or alternative explanations for identified associations between chemical exposure and disease. Any environmental chemical will be present to some extent in those who ingest, inhale or otherwise are exposed to it. Thus, the rabble-rousing about “neurotoxins”, “endocrine disruptors”, or other “harmful chemicals” is essentially meaningless, without specific relationship to dose, exposure timing, and comparison to appropriate control populations. Our ability to measure substances at very low concentrations has outstripped our ability to determine causation.
Unfortunately, bio-monitoring has been abused as a tool. The practical problem with overstating exposure-disease associations is seen every day by medical professionals who evaluate people who are fearful of being “poisoned” by the latest chemical touted in a study as the cause of the same disease blamed on another compound just the month before, noted witness Dr. Charles McKay.