April 23, 2007

Landmark study compares Canadian, U.S. and EU policies on industrial chemicals

In the first study of its kind, Pollution Probe and Environmental Defense (U.S.) have released a comparative analysis of Canadian, U.S. and European Union policies on industrial chemicals. The study report, titled Not That Innocent: A Comparative Analysis of Canadian, European Union, and United States Policies on Industrial Chemicals, compares the policies that form the basis of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act, and the EU's new REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals, adopted in December 2006).

The study's focus on what it terms "industrial chemicals" excludes chemicals used only as pharmaceuticals, cosmetic ingredients, pesticides or food additives, which are regulated under other statutes. The term is not intended to mean that such chemicals are used only in industry: many of these chemicals are also present in consumer products, notes the report.

For several decades, says report author Richard Denison (PhD), senior health program scientist for Environmental Defense, government policies have granted industrial chemicals already in commerce a strong "presumption of innocence," allowing companies to produce and use such chemicals generally as they see fit, in the absence of clear evidence of harm. This stands in sharp contrast to the "presumed guilty until proven innocent" approach adopted for classes of chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and pesticides-both of which are governed by separate statutes.

While the burden of proving the safety of the latter classes resides with industry, it remains up to government (and, by extension, the public) to demonstrate that an industrial chemical (or group of chemicals) poses enough of risk to warrant regulatory controls.

"Mounting evidence shows that many of these [industrial] chemicals are actually not that innocent," says Dr Denison. "Existing policies have allowed chemicals to accumulate in the environment and in the bodies of virtually all people on earth--while failing to deliver the information needed to determine what risks they pose."

One profound consequence of current policies is that government, the public and often companies themselves know very little about the potential risks of most such chemicals, and companies have little or no incentive to develop better information.

"The lack of good information not only means we don't know which chemicals may pose risks, we also fail to learn which ones pose little or no risk, and hence might serve as viable substitutes," Dr Denison points out, adding that "Companies that make and use chemicals are arguably in the best position to internalize information about risk and use it from the outset to design out risk from their products."

After decades of a relatively passive approach, a paradigm shift is beginning to take place as all three jurisdictions move to address the legacy of un- or under-assessed chemicals. Changes are being made to put in place policies that are knowledge-driven and place more of the burden of providing and acting on that information on those who stand to profit financially from the production and use of chemicals. Examples include: the voluntary High Production Volume (HPV) chemical challenge, which is developing basic screening information on the potential hazards of some 2,000 of the highest-volume chemicals in the U.S.; and Canada's Domestic Substances List (DSL) categorization, which reviewed data on some 23,000 previously unassessed chemicals which have been in commerce in Canada over the past 20 years and led to over 4,300 substances being singled out for further scrutiny of their potential risks.

Most ambitious of all, says the report, is the EU's REACH initiative, which will require producers and users of an estimated 30,000 chemicals in Europe to register them and provide information on their production, use, hazard and exposure potential. For chemicals determined to be "substances of very high concern," REACH will allow their use only if explicitly authorized.

The 140-page report presents "best practices" relating to chemicals assessment and management, based on a comparative examination of the three jurisdictions' approaches. These best practices address six core functions:

* listing and assigning priority to chemicals of concern;

* naming and tracking chemicals and their production and use;

* facilitating or requiring the generation and submission of risk-relevant information;

* assessing information to determine hazard/exposure/risk;

* imposing controls to mitigate risk; and

* sharing and disclosing information, while ensuring protection of confidential business information.

The study proceeds to compare the current status under Canadian, U.S. and the EU's REACH against the best practice for each functional element. It concludes that implementation of the best practices can facilitate a shift toward knowledge-driven policies that will motivate and reward, rather than impeding and penalizing, the development of information sufficient to provide a reasonable assurance of safety for industrial chemicals.

The report was prepared with the support of and contribution by Pollution Probe, whose executive director Ken Ogilvie called its release timely, in view of the recent completion of the CEPA review by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. "Not That Innocent: A Comparative Analysis of Canadian, European Union, and United States Policies on Industrial Chemicals is a major contribution to greater understanding of the complex world of industrial chemicals management," Ogilvie added.

The report may be viewed on the Pollution Probe Web site, www.pollutionprobe.org/Publications/Toxic.htm.

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