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74 billion is a pretty big number no matter how you look at it. And it becomes even more striking when you hear that 74 billion is the number of pounds of chemical substances (equal to around 34 billion kilos) that were produced or imported into the US every single day in 2006. And that doesn’t even include fuels, pesticides or pharmaceuticals.

So you’d think that with all that material flying around, the regulators would have a good handle on what it all is and have fairly decent risk assessment processes set up to make sure no one gets unduly exposed to something nasty.

Hmmm. Sort of.

At a session at the AAAS meeting this week Meg Schwarzman, a research scientist looking into green chemistry and chemicals policy at the University of California, Berkeley, US, made it quite clear that US chemicals policy is somewhat lacking. The US has the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which came into force in 1976, but by all accounts it doesn’t do a great job of collating chemical information.

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‘At the heart of TSCA’s failing is that it doesn’t require chemical producers to generate basic information on the uses of chemicals, their health effects or exposure potential,’ says Schwarzman. ‘The default assumption is that chemicals remain on the market unless or until government can prove that they’re harmful.’

If you work with chemicals anywhere in Europe, you’ll probably be aware of the Reach legislation that’s causing headaches at the moment. Reach – registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances – essentially requires industry to provide vast amounts of information about chemicals so that we can be sure that materials are being used in a way that isn’t likely to cause harm.

The basic premise is that if a company doesn’t supply the necessary data, it ain’t getting on to the market. Information that might previously have been locked up in a company’s filing cabinet will therefore have to see the light of day.

Leaving aside the catalogue of stumbling blocks that have plagued Reach since it became law in 2007 (IT problems, data sharing groups not cooperating, spiralling costs) it has good intentions. It makes sense to characterise the thousands of chemicals that are used in the lab, workplace or home, and having a central repository should help cut unnecessary testing by different organisations further down the line.

So while Reach will undoubtedly mean a huge amount of work for several years to come, at least they’ve made a start. The US seems to have quite a long way to go.

Anna Lewcock

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