Image: Bubble Monster at Flickr, Audi insperation
Only a few months ago, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration would pick up the pace of the Chemicals Assessment and Management Program (CHAMP), partly in response to the barrage of activity in the EU under REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of CHemicals). Now the EPA has thrown Industry and Citizens into confusion with an announcement that all activity to screen and prioritize hazardous chemicals under CHAMP is to be suspended, effective immediately. How is it possible the EPA finds doing nothing better than doing something -- especially in the face of increasing concerns about the chemicals in our bodies, and even in the everyday products sold for our kids? And how long before EPA is doing something again?Insiders Mulling Over Impacts
The insiders, BNA and ChemicalWatch, are both reporting that EPA has released an announcement on the end of CHAMP. But even industry professionals are left in the dark, as no announcement has been made publicly available at the websites of CHAMP, the EPA, nor the White House blog.
Major organizations have responded cautiously to the announcement. Some statements published in Chemical & Engineering News:
- "We are confident that any changes to ChAMP do not signal a reversal of the U.S. government's commitment, but rather further strengthen the program."
-American Chemistry Council.
- "It is extremely disheartening that the administration would abandon its priority-setting chemicals management process before it is even given the opportunity to work."
-National Petrochemicals and Refiners Association
- "We urge EPA to not delay the forward progress it has been making under ChAMP."
- Society of Chemical Manufacturers.
CHAMP for Better or Worse
CHAMP represents a largely "voluntary" effort by the chemical industry to provide information on High Production Volume (HPV) chemicals. "Voluntary" in quotations, because such programs have become the preferred way for industry to avoid the burden of regulation by stepping up to the plate first. So the response of industry can be understood in the context of fears that the program which succeeds CHAMP may very well require a bit more -- meaning more cost and more bureaucracy in the pursuit of more protection of American citizens.
The Environmental Defense Fund and others have criticized CHAMP for an insufficient standard of protection, pointing out that the data submitted voluntarily by industry shows large gaps in knowledge about the chemicals currently on the market. Worse, according to EDF, is the process EPA applies to the incomplete data. CHAMP throws chemicals with no evidence of a high hazard into the "don't worry" or "don't worry too much" boxes. EDF argues that in the face of incomplete data, EPA should flag chemicals for priority research whenever the data is incomplete.
As is often the case in the complexity of the real world, both sides are right. The chemicals which have incomplete data are most often the ones that industry knows are not too bad, based on years of handling these chemicals without observing any clusters of illness related to them. So the assumption that these chemicals are "safe" is not groundless in spite of a lack of specific animal studies. Perhaps hiding behind the PETA issues, industry makes a strong case that testing should not be done simply so that check-boxes can be ticked.
What Comes After CHAMP?
But EDF can rightly point out concerns that are not addressed by industry's stance that some chemicals are simply "recognized as safe." Changes are occurring in our bodies and the environment that are not sufficiently explained nor attributed. More study is needed, or we are effectively using ourselves, and our only planet, as a giant laboratory.
And no matter who is right, the key fact is that the US EPA has to do something. Clearly the Obama Administration is committed to environmental protection. So the message behind the suspension of the Bush era CHAMP program can only imply a finding or anticipated finding, perhaps under cost-benefit analysis, that CHAMP is grossly, indefensibly ineffective. Subtext: US citizens have been inadequately protected for years in spite of money being thrown at the problem (EPA requested a hefty increase in its 2010 budget for more hiring in CHAMP).
The anticipated successor to CHAMP is the Lautenberg Kids Safe Chemical Act. This law would update the decades old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). In the wake of European REACH, EPA will be under pressure to expect more, much more, from industry. A battle looms. Will industry be able to maintain its stance that "responsible care" can protect people and the environment most cost-effectively? Or will they face an era of regulatory control championed by a public confused and fearful as they confront daily a chemical soup.
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