INSIGHT: Battle lines being drawn in US on phthalates, retardants

04 January 2010 16:03  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--One of the major battlegrounds for US chemicals producers in 2010 and beyond was more clearly mapped out at the end of December.

The US chemicals trade group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), not surprisingly reacted strongly to the ‘chemical action plans’ (CAPs) revealed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for four sets* of chemicals including phthalates and decabromodiphenyl ether (deca-BDE).

The initial sets, the ACC said, "seem to have been selected based on little more than their current ‘high-profile’ nature". The CAPs are the most important aspect of the EPA’s revised chemicals management programme and mean that the chemicals are likely to be more tightly controlled under the US Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

High profile, certainly. US states have sought to ban the deca-BDE and other similar flame retardants sooner rather than later, while phthalates have been high on the agenda of concern for years.

Producers have sought alternatives and some are working to phase-out timelines, but the first move by the EPA to revamp chemicals management under TSCA has, as might have been expected, raised concerns.

Publication of the list once again puts the industry on the back foot. The ACC talks of a lack of transparency in the EPA’s approach and of scientific uncertainty.

“The chemical industry supports modernising the way chemicals are managed in commerce, but the CAP process to date provides no evidence of a systematic, science-based approach to chemicals management,” ACC president and CEO Cal Dooley said in a statement on 31 December. “It is vital that this be addressed,” he added.

But does the industry want a US version of Reach, the EU’s chemicals registration and evaluation behemoth that is causing producers and consumers of chemicals so much of a headache? Probably not. But a more systematic approach to chemicals management might be welcomed.

Customers of the chemical industry, consumers and producers need to have confidence in a revitalised TSCA. And this requires continued work to better understand the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment.

Yet all parties are aware of the role the greater precaution is playing in the debate over many classes of chemicals.

The ACC reckons that the EPA “fails to note that exposure to phthalates in the general public indicated by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) data are below – in most cases, well below - safety limits established by the EPA and the European Union”. It says it will need time to study the specific actions on phthalates recommended by the EPA but is encouraged by the agency’s plan to work closely with other federal agencies.

On the deca-BDE issue, the ACC is worried about the pressure that might be brought to bear on voluntarily agreed phase-out deadlines. The current goal is that companies stop producing, importing and selling deca-BDE in the US by the end of 2013.

But voluntary agreements are just that, voluntary, and there is little doubt that for phase-outs and bans to be effective, tighter regulation is probably necessary.

As some in the industry believe, confidence in chemicals is often only brought about by fair regulation that inspires confidence across chemicals supply chains and among the general public.

Both the phthalates and the deca-BDE flame retardants issues have encouraged customers of chemical companies to seek alternative chemicals or materials. The EPA’s chemical action plans at least stimulate wider debate on the chemicals concerned. They seek to update the science on these substances, too.

But the ACC is concerned that there has been little transparency surrounding the scientific basis for selection of the phthalates for the CAP programme. “The action plans released today include references to scientific studies that the agency believes make the case for restrictive action, but the agency should maintain their responsibility to review the weight of evidence for all scientific studies, even those that lead to a different conclusion,” Dooley said.

The EPA says that several studies have shown associations between phthalate exposures and human health, although it admits that no causal link has been established. Eight phthalates are included in its phthalates action plan. “Recent scientific attention has focused on whether the cumulative effect of several phthalates may increase the potential reproductive effects in the organism exposed,” it says.

It also wants to assess by 2012 possible ‘green chemistry’ alternatives to the chemicals, which largely are used as plasticisers. It believes it could use the information to encourage industry to move away from phthalates outside of additional possible regulation under TSCA.

While a move towards alternatives to phthalates and also other chemicals of concern may not be without commercial advantage, US chemicals producers are right to be concerned about the wider precautionary approach to chemicals that is being urged on government. The US chemicals regulatory environment is changing and producers and the trade associations that represent them need to be on their guard.

(*The EPA has prepared action plans for phthalates, long-chain perfluorinated chemicals [PFCs], penta, octa and deca-BDE [PBDEs] in products and short-chain chlorinated paraffins. It is developing CAPs on benzidine dyes and pigments and bisphenol A among others.)

The ICIS Reach Group on ICIS connect is the place to discuss the implications of tougher chemicals control

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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