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Regulating toxic chemicals for public and environmental health

by Linda S. Birnbaum & Liza Gross
January 25, 2018 PLOS Biology

This Editorial is part of the Challenges in Environmental Health: Closing the Gap between Evidence and Regulations Collection.

By the time President Gerald Ford signed the United States Toxic Substances Control Act in the fall of 1976, tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals had entered world markets with no evidence of their safety. Ford’s signing statement described a law giving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad regulatory authority to require toxicity testing and reporting to determine whether the chemicals posed risks. “If a chemical is found to present a danger to health or the environment,” Ford promised, “appropriate regulatory action can be taken before it is too late to undo the damage.”

That’s not what happened. The 60,000-plus chemicals already in commerce were grandfathered into the law on the assumption that they were safe. And the EPA faced numerous hurdles, including pushback from the chemical industry, that undermined its ability to implement the law. Congress finally revised the law last year, with the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, to bolster the EPA’s regulatory authority. Over the decades that US policy on chemicals stagnated, scientists documented the damage whole classes of chemicals inflicted on living organisms and the environment that sustains them. Although we still have safety data on just a fraction of the 85,000-plus chemicals now approved for use in commerce, we know from field, wildlife, and epidemiology studies that exposures to environmental chemicals are ubiquitous. Hazardous chemicals enter the environment from the factories where they’re made and added to a dizzying array of consumer products—including mattresses, computers, cookware, and plastic baby cups to name a few—and from landfills overflowing with our cast-offs. They drift into homes from nearby agricultural fields and taint our drinking water and food. Today, hundreds of industrial chemicals contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested, in the US and beyond.

In the decades since Ford promised a robust policy to regulate potentially hazardous chemicals, evidence has emerged that chemicals in widespread use can cause cancer and other chronic diseases, damage reproductive systems, and harm developing brains at low levels of exposure once believed to be harmless. Such exposures pose unique risks to children at critical windows of development—risks that existing regulations fail to consider. To address these issues, PLOS Biology is publishing a special collection of seven articles, Challenges in Environmental Health: Closing the Gap between Evidence and Regulations, that focus on US chemical policy [1].

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