Regulating toxic chemicals for public and environmental health

  • Gross L
  • Birnbaum L
Citations of this article
Mendeley users who have this article in their library.


By the time President Gerald Ford signed the United States Toxic Substances Control Act in the fall of 1976, tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals had entered world markets with no evidence of their safety. Ford's signing statement described a law giving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad regulatory authority to require toxicity testing and reporting to determine whether the chemicals posed risks. " If a chemical is found to present a danger to health or the environment, " Ford promised, " appropriate regulatory action can be taken before it is too late to undo the damage. " That's not what happened. The 60,000-plus chemicals already in commerce were grandfa-thered into the law on the assumption that they were safe. And the EPA faced numerous hur-dles, including pushback from the chemical industry, that undermined its ability to implement the law. Congress finally revised the law last year, with the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21 st Century Act, to bolster the EPA's regulatory authority. Over the decades that US policy on chemicals stagnated, scientists documented the damage whole classes of chemi-cals inflicted on living organisms and the environment that sustains them. Although we still have safety data on just a fraction of the 85,000-plus chemicals now approved for use in com-merce, we know from field, wildlife, and epidemiology studies that exposures to environmen-tal chemicals are ubiquitous. Hazardous chemicals enter the environment from the factories where they're made and added to a dizzying array of consumer products—including mat-tresses, computers, cookware, and plastic baby cups to name a few—and from landfills over-flowing with our cast-offs. They drift into homes from nearby agricultural fields and taint our drinking water and food. Today, hundreds of industrial chemicals contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested, in the US and beyond. In the decades since Ford promised a robust policy to regulate potentially hazardous chemi-cals, evidence has emerged that chemicals in widespread use can cause cancer and other chronic diseases, damage reproductive systems, and harm developing brains at low levels of exposure once believed to be harmless. Such exposures pose unique risks to children at critical windows of development—risks that existing regulations fail to consider. To address these issues, PLOS Biology is publishing a special collection of seven articles, Challenges in Environ-mental Health: Closing the Gap between Evidence and Regulations, that focus on US chemical policy [1]. In commissioning the collection, we aimed to reveal barriers to developing health-protec-tive policies not only when the scientific evidence of harm is clear but also when it is uncertain. We sought to explore the technical challenges involved in determining how the hundreds of PLOS Biology |




Gross, L., & Birnbaum, L. S. (2017). Regulating toxic chemicals for public and environmental health. PLOS Biology, 15(12), e2004814.

Register to see more suggestions

Mendeley helps you to discover research relevant for your work.

Already have an account?

Save time finding and organizing research with Mendeley

Sign up for free