Live from AIHce: Keynoter Calls for Safer Chemicals

Michael P. Wilson, associate director for Integrative Sciences at UC Berkeley's Center for Green Chemistry, observed that while the United States continues to lead the world in areas of occupational safety and health, the European Union has decidedly taken the global lead in chemicals policy initiatives with its adoption of REACH.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Seventy-four billion pounds of industrial chemicals are produced in or imported to the United States daily—many of them toxic—and global chemical production is projected to double in the next 24 years. Armed with those sobering facts and using them as the jumping off place in his crusade for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), Michael P. Wilson, Ph.D., MPH, controlled the stage of the Oregon Convention Center's Portland Ballroom Tuesday, highlighting the morning's opening general session on day of AIHce 2011.

Wilson, associate director for Integrative Sciences at UC Berkeley's Center for Green Chemistry, noted that occupational diseases hurt, kill, or sicken 18,000 people every day in the United States—"that's 10 times the number of people in this room today"—and the great majority of those diseases are preventable. "Diseases caused by chemical exposure are imminently preventable," he said. "But I'm worried, particularly as I read the history of occupational health and safety in the United States, that we'll be back here in 10 years saying the same thing. We will still be struggling to protect people from toxic substances." Wilson added, however, that he does have hope that TSCA reform will make a difference and ultimately make the American workforce—and society, in general—safer.

When it was introduced in 1976, TSCA was designed with "critical weaknesses," Wilson said. Chief among those was its grandfathering in of some 65,000 chemicals that were assumed to be safe until proven otherwise—meaning that toxicity studies were not done on those grandfathered chemicals because authorities considered them safe enough. "Not surprisingly, 98 to 99 percent of chemicals in commercial use today are among those not studied," he said.

Wilson observed that while the United States continues to lead the world in areas of occupational safety and health, the European Union has decidedly taken the global lead in chemicals policy initiatives with its adoption of REACH. He added, however, that while REACH regulations are the best thing going on the planet as far as filling the data gap surrounding the bulk of chemicals in use today, that EU measure actually does not go far enough to solve the problem, and TSCA reform should go further.

In addition to "un-grandfathering" the 65,000 chemicals originally given a pass under TSCA, the reform effort also should give EPA a more efficient way to take actions on those chemicals that are identified as hazardous. Wilson noted that of the 82,000 chemicals in the TSCA inventory since 1976, EPA has taken action on merely five—and that includes the agency's failure to meet the burden of proof against asbestos.

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