Jerome Paulson and Jennifer Sass Testify at Congressional Hearing on Chemical Regulation

The release of industrial chemicals into the Elk River in West Virginia contaminated the drinking water of thousands of people and left public officials unsure about what advice to give affected residents. At a hearing of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, Professor Jerome Paulson, MD, FAAP, and Professorial Lecturer Jennifer Sass, PhD, testified about shortcomings in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that can leave communities with too little information about the safety of chemicals to which they may be exposed.

The hearing, the fifth in the series about TSCA, focused on the existing requirements for testing chemicals used in commerce and reporting information about them. The West Virginia situation was not on the official agenda, but Representative Henry Waxman, Ranking Member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, drew the connection in his opening remarks. “Last month, state and federal officials in West Virginia were left scrambling when they could not find meaningful health and safety data on a chemical that had polluted the drinking water for 300,000 people,” he reminded his colleagues.

A lack of adequate health and safety data for chemicals is common, Paulson noted in his testimony, which he delivered on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). TSCA’s safety requirements “are inadequate to protect child health and place too great of a burden for safety testing on the public sector,” he explained. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must demonstrate that a chemical is potentially dangerous before it can require a company to test it.

Putting the burden of proof on a federal agency this way, Paulson explained, “limits EPA’s ability to protect the most vulnerable, including children and pregnant women, because they face substantial barriers to obtaining the information they need to make effective risk management decisions.”

Sass, who testified in her capacity as a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), compared this situation to “requiring a doctor to prove that a patient has cancer before he can order a biopsy.” She and Paulson also highlighted the problem of companies being able to designate information submitted to EPA about chemicals’ health effects as “confidential business information,” which limits the agency’s ability to share health and safety findings with the public.

The bipartisan Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 has been introduced as a replacement to TSCA, but neither the AAP nor the NRDC supports it. “At least in hindsight, the design of TSCA was almost guaranteed to limit the information and testing available about chemicals,” Sass told the Subcommittee. “Congress should not make the same mistake again by moving forward with the introduced version of the CSIA, which would leave EPA with even less ability to gain the information it needs and the public expects.”