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EPA chemical reviews 'prioritized,' will still take a decade

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At its current pace, the Environmental Protection Agency will take more than a decade to judge whether 83 chemicals prioritized for review are toxic to humans, the Government Accountability Office says.

The EPA has banned or limited five chemicals since 1976, when the Toxic Substances Control Act passed, out of the tens of thousands used commercially in the United States. In February 2012, the agency prioritized 83 chemicals for risk assessments, initiating seven assessments that year, with plans to start 18 more during this year and next.

At its current rate, the EPA will take more than a decade to finish the reviews, according to the report (.pdf), released April 29. That's an improvement from the agency's recent history: Between 2001 and 2012, it completed just two risk assessments related to the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Even the pace that the EPA is currently on may be tough to maintain, the report says. The 25 risk assessments undertaken or planned between 2012 and 2014 were chosen because the EPA has sufficient toxicity and exposure data for them.

It can take years to compile data on chemicals because, under the TSCA, the burden is on the EPA to develop toxicity data, not on chemical companies.

To get the data it needs, the EPA first has to issue rules to require companies to test chemicals. That alone can take 3-5 years, EPA officials told auditors. It generally takes another 2 years for companies to produce the data.

In the past, the GAO has suggested that Congress make the TSCA less burdensome for the EPA and strengthen the agency's ability to obtain data from the chemical industry.

Still, the EPA has missed some opportunities to get more data on chemicals. For example, it hasn't sought access to data that chemical companies submit to the European Chemicals Agency, the report says.

The five chemicals that the EPA has banned or limited since 1976 are asbestos, dioxin, fully halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes, hexavalent chromium and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

It hasn't proposed a new ban or limitation under the TSCA since 1991.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-249 (.pdf)

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