Toxic Substances:

EPA's Chemical Testing Program Has Not Resolved Safety Concerns

RCED-91-136: Published: Jun 19, 1991. Publicly Released: Aug 5, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) progress in implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act's (TSCA) requirement that it monitor the chemical industry's testing of potentially harmful chemicals, focusing on: (1) actions EPA took after receiving test data; (2) EPA management controls over test data; and (3) EPA dissemination of chemical test results.

GAO found that: (1) since enactment of TSCA in 1976, EPA has received health and environmental test results for only 22 chemicals and has assessed the results for 13 of those chemicals; (2) although EPA concluded that three of those chemicals were dangerous, it did not take regulatory action because it believed that the chemicals did not pose significant or unreasonable risk; (3) EPA had no established criteria or methodology for determining when chemicals presented a significant or unreasonable risk; (4) there were numerous unnecessary delays in EPA assessments of chemical test results, with EPA averaging 7.7 years from recommending testing of a specific chemical to completing its evaluation of test results; (5) lack of management control and attention and failure to resolve testing problems in a timely manner caused many of the delays; (6) EPA reported its limited chemical testing as a material weakness and instituted several actions to encourage voluntary testing, international cooperation, and more efficient coordination with the chemical industry; and (7) TSCA test results were not readily accessible to researchers, other regulatory agencies, or the interested public, and the EPA method for making test results available was not always effective.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While GAO recognizes that risk determinations ultimately will be based on professional judgments, GAO believes such judgments should be guided by quantitative and qualitative criteria that can be consistently applied for each potentially harmful chemical. EPA believes the development of criteria to determine unreasonable risk is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and has refused to move toward such a criteria. GAO has suggested TCSA changes that could result in an improved method for regulating chemicals by removing from EPA the burden of having to demonstrate that they pose unreasonable risks. A two-step process could be established in TCSA for EPA to (1) determine whether a significant risk exists on the basis of several factors, such as a chemical's toxicity and production levels and (2) for those chemicals found to pose a significant risk, determine the most cost-effective actions to reduce the risks. EPA and TSCA's authorization committees are supportive of such a change.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA meets its responsibilities under TSCA to identify chemicals that present a significant risk of harm from cancer, gene mutation, or birth defects or unreasonable risk to human health or the environment, the Administrator, EPA, should establish criteria and methodology for determining when chemicals present risks that would trigger implementation of TSCA regulatory provisions. The criteria and methodology should include definitions of significant and unreasonable risk and quantitative and qualitative measures to determine when such risks are present.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has established a management information system to monitor the status of chemicals being tested.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should provide for improved accountability and control over the chemical review process by implementing an information system to monitor the status of the chemicals being tested. Such a system should provide information on: (1) the current status and milestones for each chemical tested in the program; (2) the types of tests performed; (3) time frames for future actions required, and the test results; (4) summaries of EPA reviews of test results; and (5) the final disposition of the chemical.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Test results are publicly available on several commerical information systems, including TOXLINE at the National Library of Medicine.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should identify and implement additional ways to make TSCA test results readily available to federal and state regulatory agencies, research organizations, and other interested parties. Establishing peer reviews of chemical test results so that they can be included in major scientific databases is an option that should be explored.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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