Congressional Quarterly  [Printer-friendly version]
August 2, 2006


Testimony before U.S. Senate Committee on Senate Environment and
Public Works

[Rachel's introduction: "The U.S. private sector is simply not
investing vigorously enough in cleaner technologies, such as green
chemistry, that are likely to mark the next era of innovation and
growth in the global chemicals market. With very few exceptions one
can still earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at U.S. universities without
demonstrating even a rudimentary understanding of how chemicals
affect human health and the environment."]

By Michael P. Wilson

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you very much for
inviting me to the hearing today on chemicals policy and the Toxic
Substances Control Act. I am Michael Wilson, an assistant research
scientist with the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at
the University of California (UC), Berkeley and the lead author of a
report regarding chemical problems in California and the steps the
California Legislature can take to respond to those problems.

I will speak briefly about the report, entitled Green Chemistry in
California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and
Innovation, which was published by the University of California in
March of this year. I would like to acknowledge co-authors Daniel Chia
and Bryan Ehlers and the Advisory Committee of experts that provided
technical guidance and rigorous review of the document over a two-year

The report responds to three questions posed to the University by the
California Legislature:

--What are the key chemical challenges facing California?

--What are the causes of those challenges?

--How might the Legislature respond to those challenges?

In answering these questions, we found that California, like other
U.S. states, is facing an array of problems with chemicals. These
problems are experienced in different ways by the businesses in our
state that purchase and use chemicals, by our government agencies, and
by consumers and workers. But three themes emerged out of our
investigation. First, there is insufficient information in the
marketplace to make informed decisions abut chemicals.

Second, government is overly constrained in its capacity to protect
public and environmental health from chemicals.

And third, more needs to be done to motivate investment in safer
chemical technologies, known as "green chemistry." While the focus of
the report is on the challenges that exist in California, the report
finds that the root cause of these challenges can be traced to
longstanding deficiencies in federal regulation, particularly with the
Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. The report illustrates that the
weaknesses of TSCA have produced a Data Gap, a Safety Gap, and a
Technology Gap in the U.S. chemicals market. I would like to briefly
explain these three Gaps and their relevance to chemicals policy in
the U.S.

The first of these, the Data Gap, is perhaps the most fundamental. As
you have heard from other witnesses, TSCA does not require chemical
producers (U.S. or foreign) to generate and disclose robust
information on the toxicity of the vast majority of chemicals in
commercial circulation. Markets cannot function without good
information, and the chemicals market is no different. We found that
California businesses that use chemicals are unable to identify and
choose the safest chemicals for their needs. This leaves them with
uncertainties and liabilities arising from the potential effects of
these chemicals on their workers, on their customers, and in the
environment. Even large firms, such as those in California's
electronics industry, are finding it very difficult and expensive to
identify and replace hazardous chemicals in their supply chains. These
firms simply do not have the right kind information to identify safer
chemical alternatives. Of course, small business owners, workers, and
consumers are affected even more acutely by the lack of appropriate
information in the chemicals market.

This pervasive lack of information also poses a barrier to the
competitive advantage of innovative companies that are investing in
green chemistry. In the current chemicals market, customers, investors
and others are unable to efficiently differentiate between
conventional chemicals and safer alternatives. The report finds that
green chemistry will become commercially viable only when the market
allows these entities to make informed purchasing decisions. It is one
of the proper roles of government to ensure that the market has
sufficient information to function properly, and in this regard, TSCA
has come up short.

The second challenge recognized in the report is the Safety Gap. It is
also a proper function of government to ensure that the production and
use of goods does not come at the expense of public and environmental
health. Here again, TSCA has fallen short. It is well recognized that
U.S. EPA has been greatly constrained in it ability to assess the
hazards of chemicals in commercial circulation and to control those of
greatest concern. This has allowed hazardous chemicals to remain
competitive in the market, and it has unnecessarily put the public at
risk. It is also costly. For example, the EPA expects that if
production and regulatory practices remain the same, 600 new hazardous
waste sites will appear in the U.S. each month of every year over the
next 25 years; clean-up costs are estimated at over $250 billion. The
CDC reports that about half of the top 50 chemicals at existing waste
sites can cause birth defects; others are toxic to the human nervous

Other social costs of chemical exposures are more subtle. There is
evidence that hundreds of chemicals are accumulating in the human
body. Some of these -- including flame retardants, wood preservatives,
and stain repellants -- have been identified in the umbilical cord
blood of newborn babies. Of course, the effects of chemical exposures
during the uniquely sensitive period of human development are of great
concern. Furthermore, chemical exposures in the workplace continue to
produce a substantial burden of occupational disease in the U.S. In
California, about 23,000 workers each year are diagnosed with chronic
diseases that are attributable to chemical exposures on the job. The
Safety Gap created by TSCA is allowing real problems to continue
unchecked, problems that will likely expand as global chemical
production doubles over the next 25 years.

Together, the Data Gap and Safety Gap are contributing to stagnant
conditions in the U.S. chemicals market. This is producing what we
characterize in the report as a U.S. chemical Technology Gap. Only 248
new chemicals introduced since 1979 have reached High Production
Volume status in the U.S., about 8% of the High Production Volume
chemicals in commercial circulation today. In its 1996 Vision 2020
report, the U.S.-based Council for Chemical Research, together with
the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemical
Engineers, the American Chemistry Council, and the Synthetic Organic
Chemical Manufacturers Association, wrote that the vast majority of
chemical products are manufactured in the U.S. using technologies
developed 40 to 50 years ago and that new technologies are needed that
incorporate economical and environmentally safer processes, use less
energy, and produce fewer harmful byproducts. Ten years after the
Vision 2020 report, the websites of the 50 largest U.S. chemical
companies all contain a statement of commitment to achieving
sustainability goals, but their spending on research and development
has decreased or remained flat since 2000, according to the National
Science Foundation.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Committee on Grand
Challenges for Sustainability in the Chemical Industry, convened by
the National Academy of Sciences, concluded in its December 2005
report that in "going forward, the chemical industry is faced with a
major conundrum the need to be sustainable (balanced economically,
environmentally, and socially in order to not undermine the natural
systems on which it depends) and a lack of a more coordinated effort
to generate the science and technology to make it all possible." The
committee included academic scientists as well as representatives of
Dow, PPG Industries, ConocoPhillips, and Agraquest.

The U.S. private sector is simply not investing vigorously enough in
cleaner technologies, such as green chemistry, that are likely to mark
the next era of innovation and growth in the global chemicals market.
It is a reflection of the current state of the chemicals market (and
the Technology Gap in particular) that with very few exceptions one
can still earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at U.S. universities without
demonstrating even a rudimentary understanding of how chemicals affect
human health and the environment. U.S. chemistry graduate students are
not required to gain an understanding of the principles of toxicology.
This is a serious problem not only for public and environmental health
but for the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. chemical industry
itself, as noted last year by the NAS Grand Challenges committee.

So what is to be done? First, our report acknowledges that the U.S.
chemical industry generates important benefits for society in the form
of an extraordinary array of substances serving all sectors of the
economy. At the same time, our report finds increasing evidence that
many of these substances can adversely affect human health and disrupt
the biological systems on which life itself depends. This is precisely
what makes chemicals policy so difficult. Some of the properties that
make chemicals useful to society also make them hazardous to people.
Once we acknowledge this paradox, however, we can begin to think about
how to re-design the production and regulatory systems so that they
amplify the positive contributions of chemicals to society while
steadily reducing their negative impacts. This represents a system
that is founded on the principles of green chemistry. It essentially
introduces the toxicity of chemicals into the market on an equal
footing with price and function, and in doing so it moves the market
steadily toward the design, production, and use of chemicals that are
inherently safer for people and ecological systems.

In short, a fundamental overhaul of the federal Toxic Substances
Control Act is needed. A modern U.S. chemicals policy will need to put
in place the market conditions that advance the technical and
commercial viability of green chemistry. These new market conditions
will begin to motivate the chemical industry to focus its enormous
talent and technical capacity on innovating green chemistry at a level
commensurate with the scale and pace of chemical production. It will
open new market opportunities for green chemistry entrepreneurs. It
will not, however, be achieved through voluntary initiatives by the
industry, nor will it be achieved by piecemeal approaches to chemicals
policy, or by providing occasional funding to universities to conduct
green chemistry research. While these can help identify best
practices, for example, they are not sufficient -- even collectively
-- to correct the uneven playing field in the chemicals market that
has been engendered by TSCA.

The UC report recommends that correcting these market flaws will
require a comprehensive approach to chemicals policy that closes the
Data Gap, the Safety Gap and the Technology Gap. This is the key
challenge of chemicals policy for California and the nation, and I
think it is reasonable to conclude that it is a fairly formidable
challenge. Meeting this challenge, however, will deliver real value to
the American people. It will build the foundation for an economically
and environmentally sustainable chemical industry in the U.S; it will
solve a host of costly chemical problems that are affecting public
health, businesses, and government; and it will support our industry
leaders in becoming globally competitive in green chemistry and other
cleaner technologies. Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank
you very much for your attention today, and thank you again for
inviting me to this important hearing. I would be pleased to answer
any question you might have.