Obama Administration Divided on Public Right-to-Know About Chemicals
WASHINGTON, DC, March 15, 2010 (ENS) - For the first time, the U.S. EPA is providing web access, free of charge, to the Toxic Substances Control Act Chemical Substance Inventory. This inventory contains a consolidated list of thousands of industrial chemicals maintained by the agency.

EPA is making this information available on http://www.data.gov, a website developed by the Obama administration to provide public access to important government information.

This action represents a move by the EPA to increase the transparency of chemical information while the agency continues to push for legislative reform of the 30 year old Toxic Substances Control Act, TSCA.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding a series of oversight hearings leading up to the introduction of legislation to reform the Act.

EPA officials say the free web access to the TSCA Chemical Substance Inventory is part of Administrator Lisa Jackson's commitment to increase information on chemicals provided to the public.

"Increasing the public's access to information on chemicals is one of Administrator Jackson's top priorities," said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.

Chemicals in a workplace (Photo by Adam Slater)

Until now, the consolidated public portion of the TSCA Inventory has been available only by purchase from the National Technical Reports Library or other databases.

"The American people are entitled to easily accessible information on chemicals," said Owens, "and today's action is part of a series of ongoing steps that EPA is taking to empower the public with this important information."

Currently, there are more than 84,000 chemicals manufactured, used, or imported in the United States listed on the TSCA Inventory. Yet, EPA is unable to publicly identify nearly 17,000 of these chemicals because the chemicals have been claimed as confidential business information by the manufacturers under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Obama administration has begun to provide greater transparency on chemical risk information, including an announcement in January that signaled the EPA's intent to reduce the Confidential Business Information claim on the identity of chemicals.

In the coming months, EPA plans to add Toxic Substances Control Act facility information and the list of chemicals manufactured to the Facility Registry System, an integrated database.

But in a move that is inconsistent with the Obama administration's stated commitment to chemical information transparency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is proposing to reduce the hazard warning information that chemical manufacturers must provide to workers, customers and other users.

According to testimony submitted to an OSHA rulemaking hearing March 5 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, OSHA's plan would be a reversal in the right-to-know approach to chemical handling that would also "mislead workers about actual hazards."

OSHA proposes to remove from Safety Data Sheets the 27-year old requirement that chemical manufacturers include Threshold Limit Values from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, as well as the cancer hazard evaluations from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Under the proposal, only the OSHA maximum Permissible Exposure Limits, or PELs, would be required.

While originally raised during the Bush administration, OSHA re-proposed the industry-backed plan on September 30, 2009.

At the OSHA rulemaking hearing, Dr. Adam Finkel, a professor of occupational and environmental health, former head of the OSHA Directorate of Health Standards Programs and a PEER Board member, testified that removing the national and international advisories would be "harmful to workers."

Dr. Finkel pointed out that hundreds of chemicals have no Permissible Exposure Limits, and for these substances, workers would be provided with no information. Where PELs exist, he warned, they are often decades out of outdate and almost always less protective than the corresponding Threshold Limit Value.

The few OSHA PELs established since 1970 do not convey information about hazard or risk, because they are constrained by what OSHA believes it is economically feasible for all industries to achieve, said Dr. Finkel.

"Diluting the information provided to customers, workers and other users of toxic chemicals goes against common sense," he said, noting that OSHA has a huge backlog in setting and updating PELs.

"The notion that OSHA is spending its scarce regulatory time and energy to weaken protections is truly incredible," Dr. Finkel exclaimed.

Dr. Finkel proposes that OSHA create a list of truly risk-based exposure goals to supplant the Threshold Limit Values, which he says the agency could do in a small fraction of the time it would take to promulgate binding PELs.

OSHA claims that it is merely trying to conform with global labeling rules and that manufacturers often disagree with the cancer hazard evaluations and other advisory information.

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