Can We Balance the Environmental Costs and Benefits of Potentially Hazardous Chemicals?

Only this week did I catch up to a letter to HHS Secretary Sebelius by more than 60 members of Congress asking that HHS perform further review of the National Toxicology Program’s 12th Report on Carcinogens before it is formally released. The specific concern is the conclusion in the draft RoC that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.” I readily confess that I don’t know enough about styrene to have a view whether the draft’s conclusion is appropriate. 

According to the Congressional letter, styrene has many important uses, including a number that contribute to environmental protection. I’ll plead ignorance on the benefits of styrene, as well as the risks. 

What I do know is that the structure of environmental regulation in the United States causes these debates to be fought out in the wrong arena, over the wrong questions. The problem is that we have basically an all or nothing approach to chemical regulation in the United States. If something is toxic or carcinogenic, it gets lumped in with all other compounds that are toxic or carcinogenic, and regulated without regard to its benefits. One result is that those who want to use the substance are forced to make gatekeeping arguments to keep the compounds out of the system altogether.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a regulatory system that took into account the benefits of substances in determining how they are regulated? I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that economically valuable compounds should be given a regulatory pass, but a system that is not capable of incorporating the value of substances being regulated is inherently flawed. In fact, a system which considered the benefits of compounds in their regulation could in some cases result in more stringent regulation – even if a compound is of only marginal risk, if it provides no benefit as compared to safer alternatives, I would be perfectly happy to see such compounds regulated out of existence.

Regulatory agencies have no choice; they have to regulate under uncertainty. On many compounds, we are not going to be certain how significant the risk may be. Let’s remember that the lead industry fought the phase-out of leaded gasoline, arguing that the risks had not been clearly established. That being the case, the agencies are going to have to make judgments, such as whether styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.” Moreover, I think it is appropriate that the agencies’ scientific judgments be given some level of deference by courts. 

Let’s have the debate where it belongs. If styrene is reasonably anticipated to cause cancer, what are its benefits and, given those benefits, what level of regulation is appropriate?

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