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Caution On Precaution

Several stories in recent issues of C&EN and a conversation and e-mail exchange with an industry colleague who is involved in regulatory affairs have got me thinking about how we regulate chemicals in the U.S. Although the system is not perfect, I’m not sure it is as broken as some activists make it out to be.

Care needs to be taken in implementing any changes in the system to ensure that useful chemicals aren’t unnecessarily branded as harmful and restricted from commerce. I’m particularly uneasy about the wholesale application of what is known as the “precautionary principle” to the regulation of chemicals.

One of the stories that got me thinking was Senior Editor Glenn Hess’s profile of the American Chemistry Council’s new president, Cal Dooley, in the Jan. 5 issue. Before taking the reins at ACC, Dooley headed the Grocery Manufacturers Association; before that, he was a seven-term congressman from California.

In his interview with Hess, Dooley strikes me as a reasonable individual who is willing to work with a broad range of stakeholders to achieve consensus on important issues.

On updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), Dooley said, “We are committed to working with our allied stakeholders and the environmental community to construct a new approach that identifies the scientific data that we need to gather, the transparency that we need to provide, and the authority we need to vest in our regulatory agencies to assess the science to determine the safety of our products.”

Activists argue that reform of TSCA should incorporate the precautionary principle, which would enshrine “better safe than sorry” into the laws that regulate chemicals. Effectively, this would shift the burden from regulators having to prove a substance is dangerous to manufacturers having to prove it is safe—proof that some contend is impossible to come by.

On the precautionary principle, Dooley said, “One of the reasons why we continue to believe that the precautionary approach is not in the interest of consumers is that we are developing technology that can find trace amounts of chemicals … in the environment and in our bodies that have been there for generations, but they don’t pose a health or safety risk.” Applying the precautionary principle, Dooley said, could actually have adverse health consequences because trace chemicals are essential components of many products that enhance and extend lives.

Dooley also touched on the furor surrounding bisphenol A (BPA), which was the subject of a story by Senior Editor Mitch Jacoby in the Dec. 15, 2008, issue. Jacoby reviews the history of BPA, the products it is used in, and efforts to find replacements for it. One of those products is polycarbonate, which, among many other applications, has been used to make baby bottles.

Jacoby quotes one R&D manager as saying, “Except for the BPA component, polycarbonate is a perfect material.”

C&EN has reported how the Food & Drug Administration has been criticized for not acting to ban BPA from products used by infants and in food containers. FDA has resisted a ban because research has come to contradictory conclusions on BPA’s health effects at the levels humans are exposed to.

This brings me to my exchange with that industry colleague, who believes that industry scientists, research carried out by industry scientists, and research supported by industry funding is too often dismissed as tainted by its provenance. In reacting to an earlier issue of C&EN, he wrote: “Here are my points. First, no expert in a field is without bias. Second, if money corrupts, everyone’s money corrupts. Third, financial involvement is not the only potential source of conflict of interest.”

Our exchange ranged over numerous topics, but a major one was a call for a truce and, perhaps, a bit of goodwill. Maybe the jury is

still out on BPA; maybe FDA’s position is the prudent one. And maybe we should exercise a bit of caution before incorporating the precautionary principle into TSCA.

Thanks for reading.

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