A Small Win In The War on Toxic Chemical Regulations

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We are no strangers to the astonishing fact that the Toxic Substance Control Act has not been changed since its advent in the late 1970s. It — and the way that our nation goes about regulating toxic chemicals in general — are due for a massive overhaul. While we fight and wait for that day, we can take hope in small wins like the recent appointment of Vincent Cogliano to direct the U.S. Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), the EPA arm that assess exposure risk of toxic chemicals.

This is good news because the other finalist for the position, Michael Dourson, has deep ties to the chemical industry. We’re heaving a sigh of relief, but Dourson’s near appointment serves to highlight the all-too-comfortable relationship that chemical companies have with the EPA.

David Heath, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity reports on the “politics of poison” and he raised his voice recently to explain the toxic chemical political landscape in which our government operates.

Interviewer Al Letson sets the stage by reminding us of the push-pull between industry and regulation: industry generally opposes regulation on grounds that it drives up costs. Consumers want to be protected, but also want goods at what they perceive to be a fair price. It is natural then, that there may be some trade-offs for environmental health regulations, but Heath explains that far too often, the purses of big chemicals run the show.

Science on toxins is a little tricky. It would not be appropriate or ethical to test on humans so health risks must often be extrapolated — a fact well-exploited by chemical companies.

That's right, and the chemical industry uses that fact to create doubt. And that's a strategy that was actually pioneered by the tobacco industry, that is to argue that because there's uncertainty in the science the products are in fact safe. During the Bush administration the industry actually had support for this in the White House. Congressional investigators found that the Bush White House put many of the EPA scientific findings on hold."

While the Obama administration came in with the hopes of changing scientific integrity, the hand and will of the chemical industry was already very entrenched in Congress. Heath uses some of his interviews with Congressional leaders and his years of study of toxic health policy to show how measures have been taken to block publishing of scientific reports on—for example—formaldehyde and decisions about arsenic.

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Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson
 

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