In the United States, the primary legal framework for managing industrial chemicals used in processes and products, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA 1976
), is now over 30 years old and is widely recognized as having failed to meet the intent of Congress. Analyses of TSCA by the National Research Council (NRC 1984
), U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO 1994
), Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA 1995
), U.S Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA 1998
), Environmental Defense Fund (Denison 2009
; Roe et al. 1997
), and a former U.S. EPA assistant administrator (Goldman 2002
) have concluded that the statute has all but prevented government, businesses, and the public from a
) assessing the hazard traits of the great majority of chemicals in commerce; b
) controlling chemicals of significant concern; and c
) motivating broad industry investment in cleaner chemical technologies and safer alternatives, known collectively as green chemistry.
These outcomes are the consequence of weaknesses in TSCA that have produced three overarching gaps in the U.S. chemicals policy () (Wilson et al. 2006
The three gaps in U.S. chemicals policy. Policy measures that address the gaps will promote sustainable innovation in the chemical enterprise while improving human health and the environment.
- Data gap: Producers are not required to investigate and disclose sufficient information on the hazard traits of chemicals to government, the public, or businesses that use chemicals.
- Safety gap: Government lacks the legal tools it needs to efficiently identify, prioritize, and take action to mitigate the potential health and environmental effects of hazardous chemicals.
- Technology gap: Industry and government have invested only marginally in green chemistry research, development, and education.
Over the last 30 years, the three gaps have given rise to a U.S. chemicals market that undervalues the safety of chemicals relative to their function, price, and performance. Chemicals and products are bought and sold primarily on the basis of how much work they perform per unit cost, with very little attention given in the market to their potential impacts on human health and ecosystems throughout the chemical lifecycle. Hazardous chemicals have thus remained competitive, and broad industrial investment in green chemistry has lagged, despite efforts of some leading companies. Reflecting these market conditions, the nation’s research and education agendas have neither prioritized green chemistry development nor adequately prepared the next generation of scientists to lead the chemical enterprise toward sustainability. Collectively, the three gaps—and the market conditions they have engendered—present a formidable barrier to the scientific, technical, and commercial success of green chemistry in the United States.
Facing a similar set of chemical management problems—and their consequences for human health and the environment—the European Union in 2006 enacted a sweeping new chemicals regulation known as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) (European Commission 2008
; REACH 2007
; U.S. Department of Commerce 2008
). REACH responds to the barriers described by the data gap and safety gap by requiring producers to disclose some hazard and exposure information on an estimated 30,000 industrial chemicals. Chemical manufacturers must also gain government authorization to use certain “substances of very high concern.” These new requirements—both for data and for proving safe use—are expected to promote the development and use of safer chemical substances, closing the technology gap by fueling new investment in green chemistry science, technology, and education (Black 2008
; Buckland 2008
; Henzelmann et al. 2007
Because REACH applies equally in most aspects to manufacturers in the European Union and foreign importers, it is forcing change among chemical and product manufacturers far beyond Europe’s borders (Schapiro 2007
). Manufacturers worldwide cannot afford the losses in market share that would result should they fail to comply with REACH.
As U.S. producers prepare hazard and exposure information for the European Union Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the United States has a unique opportunity both to make use of the data and to revisit its own chemicals policy. In doing so, the United States should consider a portfolio of measures that simultaneously close the data, safety, and technology gaps. This approach will most effectively—and with minimal delay—instill within the chemicals market a more appropriate set of incentives and disincentives that are a precondition to motivating broad investment in green chemistry.
As with REACH in the European Union, a new chemicals policy in the United States has the potential to fuel global demand for safer substances and processes, increasing the incentive for research and development in green chemistry while improving human and environmental health. It also could move the United States into a position of greater collaboration in international sustainability efforts and position the country as a global leader in green chemistry innovation. Environmental health scientists have an essential role in identifying and addressing the research questions that will arise with the development of a new U.S. chemicals policy.