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But without information on a chemical in the fi rst place, it’s diffi cult to determine its potential threat. Faced with an overwhelming

fl ood of new chemicals each year and few tools to fi lter it, EPA has issued regulations to control only fi ve substances in the past four decades. And a federal court subsequently overturned one

of those

bans—for asbestos. The court determined that despite 45,000 pages of documentation on asbestos’s risks, EPA did not demonstrate that banning it was the “least burdensome” alternative as required by TSCA, a standard some now consider impossible to meet. Since the asbestos ban was overturned in 1991, EPA hasn’t tried to ban any other chemicals.

The nonpartisan Congressional watchdog agency GAO (Government Accountability Offi ce) has listed TSCA implementation on its High Risk List of federal programs. (Full disclosure: this writer worked for GAO in the 1990s). In a series of reports since at least 2005, GAO has found that EPA can’t adequately limit exposure to chemicals that might pose health risks. President Bush’s “Cancer

Panel” in 2010 was even more damning. An advisory panel of scientists convened under the National Cancer institute, it found that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” and that the roughly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the U.S. today are unstudied, understudied and largely unregulated, making exposure to potential environmental carcinogens widespread.

The panel concluded that TSCA “may be the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of environmental contaminants. . . This legislation was intended to give EPA authority to control health risks from chemicals

in commerce . .

does not include a true proof of safety provision.

. Yet TSCA At this

time, neither industry nor

government confi rm the safety of new or existing chemicals prior to their sale and use.”

Reform long overdue Just about everybody believes that

for reform, including public health offi cials, environmental groups, members of Congress, and

even the American Chemistry Council—the trade association that represents the chemical industry.


Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Response for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, H. Michael Dorsey, said in Congressional testimony months before the Elk River spill: “. . . opponents and supporters alike all agree it is past time for TSCA to be fi xed, and even the Environmental Protection Agency’s own inspector general acknowledges that it is broken. There are those of us who have held this position for decades.” The problem is getting

everyone to agree on how to do it.

This past Congress held hearings

on legislation

introduced by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Senator David Vitter (R-LA) to reform TSCA. Some, such as the American Chemistry Council, saw the bill as the best opportunity in years to update TSCA. Others, including many environmental groups, testifi ed that it failed to address TSCA’s primary fl aws, added excessive regulatory red tape that would delay action for years, provided no deadlines,

and preempted

state prerogatives to regulate chemicals on their own. In the end, Congress failed to enact any TSCA reform. Many public health and environmental experts believe that a new TSCA should shift the burden of proof

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to manufacturers to prove that their chemicals are safe, rather than requiring EPA to demonstrate that

they are

not. Ultimately, many agree, industry must develop safer, greener alternatives to replace toxic chemicals. In the meantime, a full year

after offi cials deemed water supplies safe, news stories still reveal that many people are

afraid to drink their water. In the aftermath of the spill, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences now is studying

19 MCHM’s

toxicity on fetal rats, mouse skin, fi sh growth, and cellular processes, among other things. According to its website, these studies will help scientists “better understand whether any

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affected by these chemicals and at what concentrations these effects might occur.” And the results will help them “evaluate the potential for lasting health effects in Charleston residents that may warrant additional investigation.”

A little less mystery for one chemical. Only 79,999 more to go.

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