Environment & Health

EPA program on children’s toxic exposure “flawed”

According to a new report released yesterday, efforts to protect children's health have been fatally blocked by American industry’s refusal to submit information on the commercial use of chemicals.

In a scathing critique of a voluntary reporting strategy launched with great fanfare under the Clinton administration — and quietly killed in recent years — the EPA’s Inspector General wrote that the Voluntary Children’s Chemical Evaluation Program was a bust.

According to the Inspector General, the much-hyped program was “hampered by industry partners who chose not to voluntarily collect and submit information, and EPA’s decision not to exercise its regulatory authorities under the Toxic Substances Control Act to compel data collection. EPA has not demonstrated that it can achieve children’s health goals with a voluntary program.”

This is not news to anyone who has followed EPA’s uphill battle to regulate toxic chemicals in the environment and in consumer goods. Nor is it news to anyone who has watched the agency’s various voluntary programs fail to win industry cooperation — despite endless “stakeholder meetings” in which companies repeatedly promise to pony up the details about their products' potential health risks.

“It has become very clear that chemicals can affect children both because of their exposure rates and concentrations,“ R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who frequently serves on EPA advisory panels, told me. ”If you think about flame retardants in California, for example, the levels of these chemicals in children is very significantly higher than in adults. So I do think it’s disappointing that this entire program wasn’t taken more seriously by both by EPA and by industry.”

Having said that, Zoeller added, “there may well have been some structural issues that made it difficult for industry to comply.”

The program grew out of the Clinton administration’s 1998 Right to Know directive, geared to give parents sufficient information to protect their children from toxic hazards.

Although the Inspector General lauded the agency for having put a focus on children’s vulnerability to chemicals, the report said the effort was virtually doomed from the start: “The pilot’s design did not allow for the desired outcomes to be produced.”

One reason? According to the IG, “the 23 chemicals selected for the VCCEP pilot were not the chemicals posing the greatest potential risks to children.” Both phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA), for example, were excluded from the start of the pilot program, despite evidence that phthalates can cause cancer, interfere with development, and impair the male reproductive system, and that BPA disrupts the endocrine system and can harm the developing brain, among other hazards. The VCCEP also failed because the project established guidelines for voluntary submission of the data, but never laid out firm deadlines. Only a fraction of the companies that agreed to come forward with their test data actually ever complied, the IG said.

The watchdog pointed out that ensuring the protection of children from exposure to environmental threats is central to the EPA's work. “EPA however,” the IG wrote, “lacks an active children-specific chemical management program or framework.”

Even now, despite the VCCEP’s abysmal performance, the IG wrote, “EPA has not developed an alternative program to fill this critical void.”

“This kind of voluntarism isn’t going to work,” said Zoeller. “We need to have regulatory legislation, like Toxic Substances Control Act reform, that really puts EPA in the position of regulating.”

About the reporter

Sheila Kaplan

Sheila Kaplan

Sheila Kaplan is a senior writer for STAT, Boston Globe's health venture, covering the intersection of science, money, and politics.

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