How the US can radically improve chemical safety

Read the full story at The Hill.

In the U.S., most chemicals have been considered innocent until proven guilty. They’re entered into use with little to no information about their safety, and if suspicion of harm arises, federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must do complex risk assessments to prove people are exposed at high enough concentrations to warrant action. This can take years or decades per chemical, and there are tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce today. 

Sound inefficient? Well, leading scientists agree. That’s why a more common-sense idea is gaining traction. The “essential-use approach” is quite simple in theory: If a chemical is harmful, or suspected of being harmful, it should be restricted to only those uses that are essential — and only until safer alternatives are developed. One can hardly find fault with that logic. Are antimicrobial socks or waterproof bathing suits essential enough to risk the use of harmful chemicals? Not likely. But we may need these chemicals in some surgical gowns or firefighting gear, at least until a safer alternative is developed. 

This approach is being adopted by the E.U. and several U.S. states. However, in practice, how to apply it is still being hammered out. In a new paper, we join other scientists from government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academia in providing specific recommendations for how the essential-use approach can be applied by governments and businesses wanting to remove harmful chemicals from commerce. 

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