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A scientific call to better control US chemicals

Experts with the US National Academy of Sciences are urging the federal government to beef up procedures to protect the public from risky chemicals. The academy's executive agency, the National Research Council (NRC), recommends uniform guidelines be set for assessing the hazards. The NAS, itself, calls for much wider testing to detect chemicals that might cause genetic damage in humans.

In short, these experts consider the present system inadequate for rooting out the dangers. They find regulation of hazardous substances to be snarled by uncertain standards and confused by overlapping responsibilities among various agencies.

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Something like 70,000 man-made chemicals now are in use. A thousand new ones are created each year. Responding to a request from Congress, an NRC committee spent two years studying how best to assess any health dangers this complex brew might represent.

The outstanding need, its report says, is for uniform guidelines for risk assessment that apply to all relevant federal agencies. These should encourage better assessment and help industry set up more effective testing programs of its own. Moreover, since most regulated chemicals fall under jurisdiction of two or more agencies, uniform guidelines should help ensure coordination and hence more effective control.

To help set all this up, the study suggests that Congress establish a Board on Risk Assessment within the NRC itself to recommend needed research.

A recently released academy report on genetic dangers, meanwhile, urges something approaching comprehensive screening of potentially hazardous chemicals - service which present testing methods are too cumbersome to provide.

Standard tests for gene-damaging agents are costly and time consuming. They use animals such as mice. The NAS would primarily rely on tests that use bacteria or other single cells. Such tests are cheap and quick. Yet, the study says, they can be effective.

If a chemical's safety can't be resolved by these tests, then it would be tested at a higher biological level, using fruit flies. Again, this would be cheap and quick. Only a relatively few chemicals that still seemed doubtful would go on to more elaborate testing, such as the now-standard mouse trials.

At this writing, there has been no reaction from the Environmental Protection Agency, which received the academy report in December. However, the problems which the two studies highlight are basic and urgent. At some point, the federal government will have to confront them.

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