America used to be a chemistry powerhouse: It’s the nation that made teflon, Super Glue, and Magic Grow dinosaurs. But recently, the number of new chemical substances approved by federal regulators has dropped by half.
That’s because last summer Congress issued reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 30 year old law governing how the EPA and other federal agencies check the boxes that let new chemicals come to market. Industry groups say these significant changes to the review process are to blame, while agency officials say it’s nothing more than temporary growing pains during the initial transition. But one thing seems clear—the slowdown is real.
The Toxic Substances Control Act has been around since early days of the EPA; it gives the agency oversight over a wide range of commercial, industrial and consumer applications of microbial biotechnology—pretty much anything potentially harmful to humans or the environment that’s not food, drugs, cosmetics or pesticides.
That approval process changed significantly on June 22, 2016, when Congress passed an amendment called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. Before, the agency had the authority to take action and halt approval if they found cause for concern with a new substance. But, if they they didn’t, they could simply dropped the review and the chemical could proceed. Now, by law, the EPA must give a full review to every substance, and only those that pass can go to market.
During those first six months prior the 2016 update—under the old review process—the EPA dropped the review of 81 new chemical substances, effectively OK-ing them for market. For cases reviewed between June 23, 2016 and the end of the year, the agency found only 39 substances to be “not likely to present reasonable risk,” the new affirmative head nod toward commercialization. That leaves hundreds of applications stuck in review limbo, with the backlog growing bigger every day.