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US authorities target phthalates as part of chemical scrutiny overhaul

By Rory Harrington and Simon Pitman , 30-Sep-2009

Phthalates will be one of six controversial chemicals to be reviewed as part of a move to overhaul the way potentially dangerous substances are scrutinized in the United States.

The announcement came as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Lisa Jackson unveiled sweeping plans to revamp the current system under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which she dismissed as “an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects”.

Jackson added that the public had become “understandably anxious and confused” as the presence of chemicals has become “ubiquitous in our environment and our bodies".

“Many are turning to the government for assurance that these chemicals have been assessed using the best available science. Current law doesn't allow us to give those assurances,” she said.

BPA highlighted

Spearheading this change, Jackson said the EPA would begin evaluating half a dozen of the most high-profile chemicals that have raised concerns – including phthalates, which are found in cosmetics such as nail varnish.

“There are subtle and troubling effects of chemicals on hormone systems, human reproduction, intellectual development and cognition,” she said. “Every few weeks, we read about new potential threats phthalate ester… which have been said to affect reproductivity.”

Scientific studies have in the past shown a link between the presence of phthalates during pregnancy and the low birth weight of infants and breast cancer.

Phthalates are a family of compounds, two of which are commonly used in cosmetic and personal care products to formulate products such as hairspray, nail varnish and fragrances.

The agency is in the process of collecting data from industry on these substances in order to evaluate their safety and formulate action plans that could result in limiting popular exposure to some chemicals. The body may also order products containing the substances carry advisory labels.

Four plans will be published in December describing how the EPA will handle the initial chemicals. Similar plans for more substances will be posted at four-monthly intervals after this, said the EPA.

Shift in burden of proof

The EPA also outlined a raft of new proposals aimed at fixing the system that is “failing” in its oversight functions - including lifting the burden of proof from the agency to prove a substance poses a risk and instead forcing chemical companies to prove its safety.

Chemicals should be reviewed against risk-based safety standards based on sound science and the EPA should have clear authority to take risk management actions when chemicals do not meet the safety standard.

Jackson said the proposals would replace current law which “creates obstacles to quick and effective action”, citing the EPA had banned just five of the 80,000 chemicals under its jurisdiction in 33 years.

The body said it would also encourage green chemistry and called for “sustained” cash to push its programme through.

Industry reaction

American Chemistry Council president and CEO, Cal Dooley said: “We welcome the Administration’s leadership and its recognition of the critical need to modernize our nation’s 30 year old federal chemical safety law.

“We must harness the advances in science and technology over the past three decades to develop a comprehensive law that puts the safety of the American consumer first, while promoting the innovation that will lead to the development of essential new chemical products and new high-paying American jobs.”

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