Yesterday the Government Accountability Office released its annual list of government programs that it considers to be at risk of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement and due for reform. The list included three new programs: the financial regulatory system (duh), the FDA's regulation of drugs (Vioxx, and this), and the EPA's regulation of toxic chemicals. The last has received little press, except here and here in Mother Jones (MJ contributor Mark Schapiro also published a book on the subject), which makes the GAO's bold suggestions much more striking.
The GAO says the EPA has a huge backlog of unperformed assessments that are needed to determine whether individual toxic chemicals should be regulated:
Overall the EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December, 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than 5 years and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher.
Of course, as we've pointed out, Europe has stepped into this vacuum with a much more stringent set of toxics regulations that essentially puts the burden of proving the safety of chemicals upon the industries that use them. The logical thing would be for the US to simply adopt Europe's approach, and that's essentially what the GAO is now suggesting. The government should "shift more of the burden to chemical companies for demonstrating the safety of their chemicals," the GAO says, "and enhance the public's understanding of the risks of chemicals to which they may be exposed."