Taste used to be a laboratory characterization technique
In April, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D – NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S.847), this act is a reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). As many environmental laws have been modernized to keep up with advances in science and technology, it is time that this was done for TSCA. TSCA has been incredibly limiting and makes it difficult for the EPA to regulate chemicals. This new act does not necessarily make it any easier, but it is a start to reform legislation that is very out of date. Regulations of chemicals is a very difficult task because there are chemicals everywhere, from the neodymium magnets in your headphones to the mercury in fluorescent lighting; but aside from the magnitude of the task, I do applaud the efforts of Senator Lautenberg, Congressmen Waxman and Rush. There are many chemicals that are important to our daily lives but some do have a harmful side effects depending on the exposure amount, form (ex: the drug thalidomide), complexing potential and many other factors. An attempt to reform TSCA is a good idea as it is important for both for the future of human health and the environment to find and remove chemicals that are toxic and hurting the environment.
The new act now places industry to be responsible for proving the safety of a chemical before it can go on the market. But a few concerns that I have with this are: what are the incentives for the chemical industry to do so according the health standards that will be laid out? Are there consequences when chemicals are not vetted correctly? I am especially glad that the chemical industry is, in general, in support of this act; however, I also realize that safety research is complex (as in all science, it is difficult to tease out the exact cause when not all factors can be accounted for) and not necessarily economically valuable for the time and resources it consumes. So how do we ensure that they will be willing to give the right safety data to EPA?
Additionally in the Safe Chemicals Act, there will be open access to chemical information, in establishing a public database of chemical information. Here, I fear that just access to data is not enough. Perhaps along with the public disclosure of safety information is a reform in the format and presentation of the information. We want the information to be interpreted correctly, so that important chemicals will not be removed due to a misunderstanding by the masses. There should be a new system for presenting safety data (very different than the current MSDS data). I see a similar transition to how we have revamped presenting the nutrition information so that the general public are made aware of the sugar intake they are consuming in a 1.9 oz cup of cereal (both with and without milk).
My favorite part of this new legislation is that it will finally bring forward the necessity for chemical industries to think greener. The Safe Chemicals Act will create grant programs and research centers that will investigate and develop safe chemical alternatives. But what is important is that we are not only finding these chemicals but in the bill there is a means to quickly review and put to use green chemicals that have been adequately tested.
This is a good start. There is a lot of work to do. EPA and industries will need a lot of help. Here’s an infographic to give you an idea for how many chemicals are out there.
Note about title: The title is not meant to indicate that I am advocating the need to implement taste in our analysis to insure safe chemicals, but more of a “can you believe that?!”. Talk about not wanting to be a guinea pig. Then, if you were a scientist, you were a guinea pig.