Researchers call for improved toxic chemical policies

From high levels of lead found in school drinking water to industry sites releasing toxic heavy metals into the air, over 40 years of regulations in the United States have failed to protect human and environmental health from toxic chemicals, according to a new paper published in the journal BioScience.

In the article, Portland State University researchers contend that these failures result from the flawed governance over the continued production, use and disposal of toxic chemicals, and lay out a plan for improved policies.

Zbigniew Grabowski, PhD, one of the authors says we need a policy framework that goes beyond permitting allowable levels of toxic risk by seeking to eliminate and replace them. He said investments need to be made into not only investigating the consequences of toxic substances, but more importantly, finding alternative ways of producing goods and services that don't generate those toxic substances.

"You could spend multiple careers trying to assess the public costs of toxic lead in drinking water, but why not work in the same lifetime on figuring out how to produce water systems that don't make people sick?" Grabowski said.

The authors looked at toxic chemical governance through five high-profile case studies: lead in school drinking water, heavy metals in industry, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides emitted by fossil fuel combustion, bisphenol A (BPA) in packaging that can leach into food and drinks, and glyphosate, one of the most commonly applied pesticides in the U.S.

The researchers said that too often, toxic chemical risks only become known after enough harm has been done to communities to elicit a social response. The U.S.'s current regulatory processes generally only mitigate or act retroactively rather than proactively.

They offer four paths forward:

  1. Shift thinking around toxic chemicals management from one of mitigating risk to one of eliminating risk.
  2. Support diverse forms of knowledge. Currently, the knowledge that is used to assess the extent and risk of harm tends to favor industry over public and environmental health advocates.
  3. Increase the representativeness and transparency of democratic processes and allow for the direct involvement of affected communities in policy design and implementation.
  4. Create policies that identify and incentivize ways of producing substances that meet the goals and needs of society without exposing people to toxic chemicals, and invest in the research and education required to support such innovation.