WASHINGTON, DC—Federal law should be updated to give the federal government more power to evaluate potentially harmful chemicals, administration officials told a Senate subcommittee. “Due to the legal and procedural hurdles in The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) over the last 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has only been able to require testing on about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in the TSCA inventory,” according to Steve Owens, assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
At a hearing held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, and Environmental Health, federal officials told the subcommittee about what the government was doing in order to protect people from potentially harmful chemicals. Owens told the subcommittee that the administration would like to see the TSCA law revised to provide stronger and clearer authority for EPA to require companies to prove that the chemicals they are producing are safe.
Sen Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, who chairs the subcommittee agreed. “With EPA unable to require adequate testing, our children have become test subjects and we are seeing the results with a dramatic increase in childhood cancers, birth defects and hormonal problems across the population.”
Republicans on the subcommittee, however, expressed concern about changing the TSCA and stated any statutory changes to the law must be based on the best available science. “For over 30 years, TSCA has provided a scientifically sound framework for reporting, testing, tracking and restricting chemical substances and mixtures,” said Sen James M Inhofe, R-OK.
CDC Uses Biomonitoring
Owens told the subcommittee that the administration would like to change the current TSCA law to require manufacturers to develop and submit data demonstrating that new and existing chemicals under review are safe. “If industry doesn’t provide the information, EPA should have the necessary tools to quickly and efficiently require testing, or obtain other information from manufacturers that is relevant to determining the safety of chemicals, without the delays and obstacles currently in place, or excessive claims of confidential business information.”
Officials pointed to results of biomonitoring to underscore the concern for exposure to harmful chemicals. Biomonitoring is one technique that has allowed scientists to measure chemicals in people’s tissues or fluids. Dr Henry Falk, MD, a CDC official, told the subcommittee that through biomonitoring it can be determined which chemicals and how much of them get into people after they have been exposed.
CDC conducts the most comprehensive biomonitoring program in the country. A CDC report released in December of 2009, reported the concentration of 212 chemicals or their byproducts in the blood or urine in a representative sample in the US. “Findings show evidence of widespread exposure in the US population to some commonly-used commercial chemicals such as bisphenol-A(BPA), the perfluorinated compound known as PFOA, and a type of fire retardant known as BDE-47.”
A limitation of current biomonitoring, according to federal officials, is that CDC only provides data for 212 chemicals, so there is no biomonitoring data for thousands of other commercial chemicals in use. In addition, biomonitoring data only indicates that a person was somehow exposed to a chemical and not the source of the exposure or its effect on a person’s health.
A GAO report on how EPA could better utilize biomonitoring data stated that a national biomonitoring research plan involving coordination from CDC, FDA, NIH and other federal agencies could help better coordinate research and strengthen efforts to identify and possibly regulate sources of harmful exposure detected through biomonitoring.
The report also recommended that EPA determine the extent of its legal authority to require companies to develop and submit biomonitoring data under TSCA. If the agency needs more authority to do this than what is provided currently under TSCA, then it should request it from Congress, according to the report.
Republicans, such as Inhofe, however, expressed concerns about how biomonitoring data is used. “Biomonitoring has its limits, as it provides information on exposure. It does not provide dose information,” he said at the hearing.
NIH and CDC Research Chemical Exposures
Lautenberg wanted to know whether chemicals—even in small amounts—can cause harm to sensitive populations.
Linda Birnbaum, PhD, director of NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and director of the National Toxicology Program at HHS, said that the presence of a chemical does not in and of itself necessarily mean there is a health problem. “The issue is how much of a chemical—and not only how much of the chemical—but the inherent susceptibility of the person in whom that chemical resides and the issue of cumulative exposure. We are not exposed to one chemical at a time. We really don’t have a good handle on what happens when we have this multiplicity of chemicals in our body.”
CDC and NIH have a number of ongoing projects assessing chemical exposure. For example, in 2002, through biomonitoring CDC found high levels of tungsten in urine in residents of Churchill County, NV, the site of a childhood leukemia cluster. Since it was not known whether tungsten was a health risk, HHS’ National Toxicology Program initiated studies on tungsten.
In a NIEHS Sister Study of 51,000 women whose sisters have breast cancer, researchers have collected urine, blood, toenail, and dust samplestoprovideasnapshotofenvironmentalexposuresatthetimeofenrollmentinthestudy,accordingtoBirnbaum’swrittentestimony. The study will assess exposure to pesticides, other hormonally active compounds such as bisphenol A and phthalates, toxic metals, trace metals, vitamin D, specific micronutrients, and hormones.
The NIEHS also has the lead for the Exposure Biology Program of the trans-NIH Genes, Environment and Health Initiative. The program is funding 32 projects focusing on the development of innovative technologies to measure environmental exposures, diet, physical activities, psychosocial stress, and other factors that contribute to disease development.
CDC is also working with NIH in a pilot study of 525 pregnant women in which CDC is lending analytical and biomonitoring expertise. CDC scientists will measure chemicals in pregnant women’s blood and urine and, after delivery, in the newborn’s cord blood and mother’s breast milk, according to Falk.