• <div class="header-image" style="background-image: url(/live/image/gid/4/2957_V6N10_Header.rev.1542820788.jpg);"/><div class="header-background-color"/>

Environmental Protection under Resource Constraints: Prioritizing Chemical Risk Assessments

August 26, 2017

American consumers routinely come into contact with harmful chemicals, including those hiding within products they might have assumed safe. The Federal Government historically had very little oversight of chemicals in the marketplace, and now an estimated 85,000 chemicals are available for common use. [1] On June 22nd, 2016, Congress took action to address this issue through amending the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). New TSCA was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, and grants the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to require health-based safety findings for new chemicals before they can enter the marketplace.

But what about regulating the thousands of chemicals already in commerce?

Image: Hazardous chemicals linked to known health effects can be found in clothing, shampoos, fragrances, building materials, electronics, flame-retardants, dyes, and baby products, among other commonplace household items. Source: Harvard University SITN.

Image: Hazardous chemicals linked to known health effects can be found in clothing, shampoos, fragrances, building materials, electronics, flame-retardants, dyes, and baby products, among other commonplace household items. Source: Harvard University SITN.

Federal Regulatory Authority

The EPA has had the authority to regulate chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act since 1976, however; this control was significantly limited. EPA was required to go through a rulemaking to request a test on a single chemical if that chemical was already on the market. Further, in order to initiate a chemical review the Agency first had to receive evidence that a chemical substance posed a risk to human health or the environment. [3] Risk-related information was often in the hands of the Industry, that is, the manufacturers and processors of chemicals, and their supply chains. Ultimately, TSCA created a chemical regulation program in the United States that was self-regulated by the Chemical Industry and its beneficiaries. In recent decades the science of bio-monitoring, and improvements in international chemical laws, have led to growing pressures on the U.S. Federal Government to improve its control over chemicals. [4] Last year, the government finally took action to address these concerns.

June 22nd, 2017 marked the one-year anniversary since the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Act, which significantly amended TSCA, was signed into law. [5] This Act, commonly referred to as New TSCA, received bipartisan support in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives before being signed by President Barak Obama. New TSCA gained the support of many regulators, environmental non-profits, NGO’s, and doctors, due to much needed reforms that significantly strengthened EPA’s authority to ensure the safety of chemicals.

The amendment includes the following improvements among others [6]:

  • New risk-based safety standard in which risk evaluations exclude cost considerations and other non-risk factors.
  • Need to evaluate risks to susceptible subpopulations
  • Increased public transparency on chemical information findings.
  • Requirement for EPA to evaluate existing chemicals with clear deadlines.

Prioritizing Risk Assessments

A Final New TSCA Framework Rule, Procedures for Prioritization of Chemicals for Risk Evaluation Under TSCA, was released onto the Federal Register for public comment on July 20th, 2017, and will be effective on September 18, 2017. [7]

As required by New TSCA, the final Prioritization Rule establishes the process by which the EPA will systematically designate thousands of existing chemicals as “High Priority Substances” for risk evaluation, or “Low-Priority Substances” for which no risk evaluations are immediately prompted. [8] The rule states that the “prioritization of chemical substances for further evaluation will ensure that the Agency’s limited resources are conserved for those chemical substances most likely to present risks, thereby furthering EPA’s overall mission to protect health and the environment.” [9] Although the high priority substances will be a relatively small subset of the universe of chemicals in the marketplace, such characterization is necessary to focus on the most pressing threats to human health and the environment.

Image: EPA Chemical Prioritization Process for Existing Chemicals as reformed under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Act. Source: EPA.

Image: EPA Chemical Prioritization Process for Existing Chemicals as reformed under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Act. Source: EPA.

The California Environmental Protection Agency urges EPA to “move forward quickly to finalize the rule and implement the prioritization process.” [10] CalEPA fears that if EPA were to delay the issuance of this final prioritization rule, then a cascading effect could result in which later assessment and management stages could experience delay as well.

Other stakeholders, such as The American Coatings Association℠, have concerns that the EPA is overreaching their resource capabilities with this prioritization proposal. ACA, a trade association representing the paint and coatings industry (including downstream users, processors, and manufacturers of chemical products), submitted a comment on the Federal Register in response to EPA’s Prioritization Rule:

ACA is concerned that all uses of a chemical substance will be included when making a designation of High Priority or Low Priority… The bar for a High Priority designation is extremely low, where only one condition of use can result in a designation of High Priority… ACA urges EPA to consider specific uses when making prioritization decisions. [11]

The debate surrounding EPA’s proposed prioritization process involves the question as to whether or not it is sensible to prioritize chemical risk evaluations before having assessed risk.

Safer Chemical Future?

Ultimately, New TSCA is an example of legislative reform in which the Federal Government is given more power to regulate Industry practices. As the EPA moves forth with prioritizing their review of both new and existing chemicals, undergoing health and environmental fate assessments, and developing risk management solutions, businesses are given an opportunity to get ahead of future regulations. Dr. Frank Wigen, Professor of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam School of Management, has demonstrated in his research that stricter environment laws, or the anticipation of such standards, tends to increase green innovation and technology. [12] With the possibility of new chemical regulations in sight, businesses focused on long-term sustainability are likely to seek safer alternatives to harmful chemicals. Initiatives to assess, improve, and take responsibility for a company’s own impact on human and environmental wellbeing is known as Corporate Social Responsibility, or, CSR. [13] An increased demand for healthier substitutes could lead to environmentally-focused R&D, and to strategies for importing, designing, manufacturing, and using safer chemicals in the United States.


With limited EPA funding and personnel, and a U.S. history of chemicals freely entering the marketplace in industrial and consumer products, prioritization of risk evaluations will focus the Agency’s attention on chemical substances that have demonstrated the greatest concerns to human health and the environment. Ultimately, the chemical substances selected as “High Priority” during the EPA prioritization process will determine which of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals in commerce will be evaluated straight away, for the protection of future generations to come.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.



  [1] Urbina, Ian. “Think Those Chemicals Have Been Tested?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Apr. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/sunday-review/think-those-chemicals-have-been-tested.html?_r=1.

  [2] Kerr, Bob. “Chemicals in Consumer Products: New Progress in Transparency.” Sustainablebrands.com, Sustainable Life Media Inc. , 30 Jan. 2014, www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/chemistry_materials/bob_kerr/chemicals_consumer_products_new_progress_transparency.

  [3] Gaby, Keith. “Passing a Strong New Chemical Safety Law.” Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, 2017, www.edf.org/health/policy/chemicals-policy-reform.

  [4] Urbina, Ian. 13 Apr. 2013.

  [5] “The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 2 Aug. 2017, www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/frank-r-lautenberg-chemical-safety-21st-century-act.

  [6] “Highlights of Key Provisions in the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 23 June 2016, www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/highlights-key-provisions-frank-r-lautenberg-chemical.

  [7] “Procedures for Prioritization of Chemicals for Risk Evaluation Under the Toxic Substances Control Act.” Federal Register, EPA-HQ-OPPT-2016-0636 FRL-9964-24, 20 July 2017, www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/07/20/2017-14325/procedures-for-prioritization-of-chemicals-for-risk-evaluation-under-the-toxic-substances-control.

  [8] “Procedures for Prioritization of Chemicals for Risk Evaluation Under the Toxic Substances Control Act.” 20 July, 2017.

  [9] “Procedures for Prioritization of Chemicals for Risk Evaluation Under the Toxic Substances Control Act.” 20 July, 2017.

  [10] Solomon , Gina M. “Comments from the California Environmental Protection Agency [Docket: EPA‐HQ‐OPPT‐2016‐0636].” Regulations.gov, Federal Register, 20 Mar. 2017, www.regulations.gov/document?D=EPA-HQ-OPPT-2016-0636-0029.

  [11] Davis, Raleigh. “Comment Submitted by Raleigh Davis, Assistant Director, Environmental Health and Safety, American Coatings Association (ACA).” Federal Register, American Coatings Association, 20 Mar. 2017, www.regulations.gov/document?D=EPA-HQ-OPPT-2016-0636-0053.

  [12] Wijen, Frank, et al., eds. A handbook of globalization and environmental policy: National government interventions in a global arena. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012.

  [13] “Corporate Social Responsibility.” Investopedia, Investopedia, LLC, 29 Aug. 2015, www.investopedia.com/terms/c/corp-social-responsibility.asp.


  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>