NRDC: Regulating Obesogens
Q&A with Sarah Janssen, senior scientist with NRDC’s health program in San Francisco
Studies have associated exposure to phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA) with adverse health affects, including changes in metabolism and in fat distribution in the body. Why has the FDA failed to regulate the use of these substances in food packaging?
Both BPA and phthalates were approved for food packaging use in the 1960s. Back then, the FDA and the scientific community weren’t aware that chemicals could interfere with hormones and lead to infertility, cancer, or metabolic changes. Because the FDA is not required to routinely re-evaluate the toxicity of food additives, these chemicals continue to be used in food packaging. But the FDA does have the power to revoke approval of a food additive when it is not shown to be safe. FDA has re-evaluated BPA toxicity after a public outcry, but it has delayed regulating it while it conducts further research.
What action has NRDC taken to force the agency to regulate these substances?
Based on the concerns about widespread exposure to, and toxicity from, BPA exposure, NRDC has filed a petition asking the FDA to revoke its approval as a food additive. The FDA has failed to respond for more than two and a half years, but we are continuing to follow up on the petition.
Moving on to the non-food uses of phthalates and BPA, many say that the current law governing the use of chemicals, the Toxic Substance Control Act (TCSA), which was introduced in 1976, fails to adequately protect the public from hazardous substances. What, specifically, is wrong with it?
TSCA was one of the major environmental laws passed around the same time as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but unlike those laws, which have been effective at cleaning up the environment and protecting public health, TSCA has always been weak. For example, the EPA has been unable to fully ban the use of a well-known toxic, asbestos. In addition, TSCA has never been updated and therefore does not incorporate the vastly expanded fund of scientific knowledge we now have about chemical toxicity.
When TSCA was first passed, over 60,000 chemicals were "grandfathered" in, with no requirement for toxicity information to continue their production. New chemicals are also not required to be tested before they are put into consumer products. While rates of diseases linked to chemical exposures continue to rise, the federal system that is supposed to be protecting us is unable to do the job and millions of people are at risk.
What are some of the recommendations in the TSCA reform bill recently introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg?
The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 would fix many of the problems in the outdated TSCA legislation. It would improve the safety of chemicals used in consumer products by requiring the chemical manufacturers to provide toxicity information about their chemicals, even those already in use. It would create a process for the EPA to immediately regulate known "bad actor" chemicals, such as lead and mercury and other chemicals that persist in the environment and build up the food chain. The bill would also update how the EPA evaluates chemicals to ensure the best available science is being used to protect the most vulnerable populations. And it would require that all this information be made public, so that consumers can access it. Finally, the bill would provide incentives for the development of safer chemical alternatives.
The chemical industry wields a lot of power in Washington. Won’t it try to block any attempts at reform?
The chemical industry currently is facing a patchwork of regulations as states enact their own chemical policy reforms and regulate individual chemicals in the absence of federal regulation. Because of this, the industry has stated that it is in favor of TSCA reform. NRDC is engaged in discussions with the industry about what is needed update the law. Thus far it has opposed Senator Lautenberg’s legislation, but it has not put forth its own ideas about how TSCA should reformed.