Are federal agencies putting science over fear-mongering?

This summer, during one of the least productive sessions in recent history, a rare bipartisan achievement slipped through Congress under the political radar. Democrats and Republicans came together with environmentalists and chemical manufacturers to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

So, what was the secret to TSCA’s success? All of these groups were unified behind a common regulatory vision: chemical regulation must be based on scientific risk alone. TSCA requires EPA to integrate scientific determinations of a chemical’s hazard, use and exposure potential so that facts, not political or fear-based agendas, are the driving force behind chemical regulations.

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To be sure, TSCA is a compromise. No one thinks it is perfect. EPA gained authority over chemical regulations, and industry got a streamlined regulatory process.  The Environmental Defense Fund called TSCA “a major improvement.” The Society of the Plastics Industry said consumers can have “confidence in the products they depend upon each day, while giving companies a more predictable regulatory system that is based on science rather than rhetoric.”

This fact-driven approach sounds obvious, but it has not always been the driving force for regulations, regardless of which party is in power. For many, EPA has become a symbol for agenda-driven regulation, with the U.S. Supreme Court striking down several EPA regulations and decisions over Agency’s attempts at exercising its authority. These high-profile episodes, though, should not overshadow where EPA has properly adhered to neutral governance. 

Again, take EPA’s relationship with the chemical industry. In March of this year, EPA entered an agreement with manufacturers to help it regulate silicone materials called “siloxanes” based on real-life field tests, not computer modeling. Siloxanes enhance the qualities of certain materials, providing important benefits to products used in health care, construction, transportation, cosmetics, electronics and many other areas of the economy.

Regulatory bodies, including Health Canada, the European Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety and the U.S. Cosmetics Ingredient Review, long ago concluded that siloxanes present no risk to human health. But, recent computer-based modeling in Norway raised alarms of potential environmental impacts when disposed.  Computer modeling has become an increasingly useful tool in raising warning flags about potential health and environmental risks, but it has limitations. It is not based on real-life results, such as epidemiological studies and field tests.

It turns out that this particular modeling was based on the wrong analytical foundation. The model was designed for carbon-based chemistries, not siloxanes. Despite this fact, European regulators moved forward with restrictions on siloxanes based on these models.  Environment Canada and now EPA have taken a more fact-based approach. After conducting a multi-disciplinary evaluation of siloxanes, Environment Canada found that siloxanes migrate to the air and degrade rapidly, and do “not pose a danger to the environment or its biological diversity.”

EPA is now undertaking a similar study of real-life data.  Pursuant to the agreement reached in March, Siloxane manufactures are gathering samples at 14 sites, including four manufacturing or processing sites and nine wastewater treatment plants. This data will be shared with EPA so that the agency can determine if warnings raised by the modeling have merit. EPA’s goal is to finalize the report next year and release it to the public. The Agency should be commended for not succumbing to the same fears as their European counterparts.

Coupling studies that may not be fully on-point with alarmist rhetoric have become powerful tools of groups that oppose chemicals and other new technologies, especially in the age of cable TV and social media. These groups are well-skilled at playing on people’s anxieties – just look at the campaigns against GMOs, large-scale farming, chemicals such as BPA, certain medicines, turf soccer fields, and the like. Questioning technology is important, but science, not fear-mongering should rule the day.

That’s why the rare moment of harmonic convergence around TSCA was so important. Hopefully this example of evidence-based legislation can lay the foundation for a return to public problem-solving in Washington, regardless of who wins this year’s elections. 

Phil Goldberg is a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute and a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Shook Hardy & Bacon, LLP.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.