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Chemical safety post-Trump?
Things are changing in the US with talk of 30 % cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). What does that mean for chemicals and the US-Europe cooperation? We met with Jim Jones, the former Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety at the US EPA, to discuss the political changes in the US, the reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the future for chemical safety.
The TSCA reform in summer 2016 – its first for nearly 40 years – was supported by both the Republicans and Democrats. The new law says that the government is obliged to examine chemicals in priority order according to strict deadlines and clear safety standards. This makes the law stronger and more efficient than the previous version. “If the basic principles of the law are not met, the government can and will be challenged in court. If it hasn’t taken care of its duties as the law states, it will lose, because the deadlines are really quite clear,” Mr Jones explains.
|Jim Jones. |
Image: Jim Jones.
But a lot has happened in US politics and leadership since the new law was passed. According to Mr Jones, the changes are likely to have an impact on its implementation. “If you listen to the rhetoric of the Trump administration, they are not interested in regulating. But under TSCA, you are required to regulate if you find a chemical that doesn’t meet the safety standards. So, it will be interesting to see how they manage that reality when their aspirations run counter to what is required by law”.
Nevertheless, he believes that the TSCA reform will be a success and will do what it was designed to do – to improve chemical safety. “One of the things I am pleased about is that the law was written well enough so that it will survive whether its purposeful wrong-doing on the part of the executive branch or just early struggles to get things started. It has clear enough deadlines with clear enough standards that it will ultimately survive this time and be effective,” Mr Jones says.
What about the 30 % cuts?
The potential cuts to the US EPA budget are something that Mr Jones is worried about. He reminds, however, that so far the proposed cuts are just that – proposals. In the end, Congress will decide if and how big the cuts will be.
Although the chemical safety programme is one of the few programmes that the new administration have said they would save from the cuts, any larger cut to the EPA as a whole would, without a doubt, harm all its activities. “If the reductions in the EPA are remotely close to the 30 % that the new administration has proposed, the chemicals programme will not be immune to the disruption it creates,” he says.
Mr Jones is particularly concerned about the cuts planned to the research arm of the EPA because those would hurt the chemicals programme the most. The research work has enabled the chemicals programme to develop new methods that can be used to assess risks of chemicals. “If we are ever really going to get to grips with tens of thousands of chemicals, we are going to need more of the cutting edge tools that can help us to evaluate them without doing more animal testing. These tools may not be operational this year, next year or even in the next five years, but our successors will need them in the future. If funding for the research is cut now, it will affect the long-term viability of chemical safety programmes”.
Bringing back the trust on science
Bringing back people’s trust in government science is something that Mr Jones sees as a critical issue to address. “The majority of people have so far agreed that chemical safety should be based on science that informs risk management. That can only work when civil society broadly supports that. However, when people start saying that they don’t trust what the scientists are doing, over time it will erode the government’s ability to do their job,” he explains.
Instead of pressure and doubt, Mr Jones hopes to see more collaboration between the different groups. “It is important that everyone gets their voices heard on the science because the government is not always right in their decisions. In the best case, we learn something from engaging with companies, the citizens and the academic community, as long as everyone takes their own responsibility”.
What about REACH?
According to Mr Jones, American companies that have obligations under REACH are generally well aware of their responsibilities. “My sense is that the chemical manufacturers in the United States are in pretty good shape when it comes to understanding the REACH requirements. I think the challenge is mostly the downstream companies trying to understand what their roles and responsibilities under REACH are,” Mr Jones says.
“In many other aspects, downstream companies are already telling their suppliers exactly what they expect from the components they buy, for example, when it comes to their functionality and meeting safety standards. Knowing what chemicals they contain needs to be added to that list, to become a new dimension, something that they will have to know in the future. But it will not happen overnight,” he explains. To get there, Mr Jones suggests that the government supports downstream companies by educating them about the importance of chemical safety.
It's all based on science
It is quite common to talk about the American and European chemical regulations as fundamentally different systems. REACH requires companies to create at least a minimum dataset for their substance upfront, whereas US companies are not required to generate any data until the government has identified their substance as a priority.
However, according to Mr Jones, this is an oversimplification and we should focus more on what the two systems have in common – which is the underlying premise of risk assessment based on science. “I have always seen this as an opportunity for collaboration. Although we may end up with different risk management measures because of the differences in the laws and their interpretations, the science that underlies the decision is the same,” he points out.
Apart from the chemical safety evaluation, Mr Jones says that the Americans have learnt a lot about the restrictions that have been put in place in Europe. “Since Europe is ahead of us in restricting chemical use, it is very helpful to learn what is actually feasible from, for example, the point of view of the cost effectiveness of alternatives”.
Robost study summaries are not enough
Sharing data is one of the areas where the two regulatory systems could support each other more. As an example, Mr Jones mentions sharing more than just the robust study summaries. This would help risk assessment and add credibility to the decisions taken.
“In the US, we have long been suspicious of simply relying on the robust study summary as the basis of any decision that we make. We learnt long ago that the way companies report study results doesn’t always match what would happen if an independent authority did the evaluation,” he points out.
Given that companies own the data, Mr Jones calls for closer cooperation with industry to make it possible for different regulatory actors to get access to all the relevant information, not just the robust study summaries. “I think that these are manageable issues. Nobody wants companies to redo all the studies. There is enough common ground to help solve the problem,” he concludes.
Did you know?
Jim Jones was appointed in December 2011 as the Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by former US President Barack Obama. He continued in the post until the end of Obama’s presidency on 20 January 2017.
Before that political appointment, he was a civil servant for 25 years, working most of the time on the chemical safety of pesticides and commercial chemicals.
After his departure from the US EPA, he has been working as a consultant, focusing on chemical safety issues, and since July 2017 as the Executive Vice President of Strategic Alliances & Industry Relations at the Consumer Specialty Products Association.
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
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