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Chemical Regulation

March 19, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 12

Partly because of the point/counterpoint format, Michael P. Walls and Joel Tickner end up driving the discussion of "The Future of Chemical Regulation" to very polarized perspectives on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) (C&EN, Jan. 8, page 34). The reality of chemical regulation in the U.S. today, as exemplified by two other reports also in the Jan. 8 issue—one announcing a Center for Sustainable Chemistry launched by the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association in partnership with EPA (page 28) and the second reporting on the HPV Challenge Program (page 42)—is that there are multiple ways of regulating.

First, to some degree EPA regulates in a classic command-and-control model: It can ban compounds or demand publication of risk data. Second, market forces regulate what chemicals are in commerce. Today, more so than at any point since World War II, manufacturing is moving overseas and the compounds to which workers and consumers are exposed undergo rapid and frequent formulation changes. Third, industry self-regulates by developing detailed standards for manufacturing and typically controls exposure to compounds within the firm's gates to a remarkable degree. Fourth, environmental and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) monitor this sector's behavior (and that of individual firms) to a striking degree. A variety of websites and newsletters track environmental releases, accidents, and manufacturing. Even a casual Internet user can find out which companies made a variety of compounds found in commerce today or in the past.

No one of these methods is the single regulatory solution, and each of them has flaws in public participation, transparency, and efficiency, especially when viewed in isolation. What we need for the future is a better understanding of this complex hybrid regulatory mix, why it evolved as it has in the U.S., and how it differs from approaches in European and Asian countries. A globally harmonized system might offer certain efficiencies, but given divergent expectations around the world for the role of industry, government, and NGOs, that is unrealistic. So the first step toward reassessment and reform in the U.S. is to more effectively map the existing system against emerging new knowledge.

Only then ought we to discuss changes at the policy level of TSCA and other federal regulations. Using TSCA as the starting point for evaluating the regulation of chemicals will only propagate what Tickner correctly identifies as outdated views on management of chemicals.

Arthur Daemmrich



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