Chemical Regulations Must Focus on Public Health

Legislators and experts at GW event discussed current implementation of a chemical safety law passed last year.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) spearheaded passage of TSCA reform last year. In a keynote address at GW, he said this is a critical moment for the EPA and the country. (Photo credit: Katie Bascuas/SPH)
June 29, 2017

By Kristen Mitchell

The Milken Institute School of Public Health hosted a day-long conference to discuss the federal government’s implementation of a law passed last year aimed at making it easier for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review chemicals in the marketplace and evaluate their effects on public health.

President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act in June 2016. The bipartisan act significantly amended the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and was the first major update to an environmental statute in 20 years. The updated law requires the EPA to evaluate safety of existing chemicals and gives the EPA greater ability to evaluate chemicals for health risks.

The George Washington University event “TSCA Reform: One Year Later” was held in partnership with the Environmental Law Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund and Bergeson and Campbell, P.C. The conference brought together legislators and chemical and environmental experts to discuss the components of the legislation and the current state of implementation.

Lynn Goldman, SPH dean, served as an assistant administrator for toxic substances in the EPA from 1993 to 1998. While she was at the agency, Dr. Goldman advocated for TSCA reform but said there was no consensus on what should be done at the time.

“We had no affirmative findings of safety either for most of the existing chemicals that were in commerce or the new ones that were being brought forward,” Dr. Goldman said in a keynote address. “We had a lot of information that EPA collected in its confidential information vault that was not accessible.”

Before TSCA reform the EPA “had an extremely weak information gathering authority,” Dr. Goldman said. Testing and evaluating chemicals on the market was extraordinarily difficult, despite Americans having regular contact with them.

“We can’t take for granted the fact that we remain safe through the regulation of materials and chemicals,” Dr. Goldman said.

Lynn Goldman

Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, served as an assistant administrator for toxic substances in the EPA from 1993 to 1998. At the time, it was difficult for the EPA to evaluate chemicals on the market, she said. (Photo credit: Matthew Golden/SPH)

Europe has surpassed the United States in using the best and safest chemicals in the world in the 40 years since TSCA was passed. The United States needs to regain its global preeminence on chemical safety, Dr. Goldman said.

Sen. Tom Udall, (D-N.M.), spearheaded passage of the chemical safety legislation last year. In a keynote address Tuesday, Mr. Udall said under the Trump administration he is concerned the EPA will embrace pressure from industry to relax the law’s focus on public safety and health.

The EPA must follow Congress’ intent and use the law to broadly evaluate chemicals to determine which uses are safe and regulate those that are not, he said.

"We must be vigilant so we can ensure a credible chemical safety system,” Mr. Udall said. "My colleagues and I will be watching in Congress, and we will cry foul whenever there is reason for concern. We must ensure this law protects the public’s health and safety—especially that of our most vulnerable populations.”

Politics and Society


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Dr. Goldman has been serving the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine since 1989.

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