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Don't Legislate Risk

Since the environmental movement took off and people began to express more concern about the chemicals in their air, water, and food, government agencies have taken a chemical-by-chemical approach to estimate contaminants' environmental and public-health risks.

Congress's approach was often simpler: In 1958, for example, it passed the "Delaney clause," which forbade the presence, even in trace amounts, of pesticides in processed foods. As detection technology improved and scientists and regulators gained experience, it became clear that a more effective and efficient method was needed.

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So when Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990, it set up a commission to study the use of risk assessment and risk management in environmental and public-health programs. The panel began holding hearings in 1994, taking testimony from scientists, academics, environmental groups, congressional staffers, regulators, and mayors. It recently released a draft study, the full text of which can be found on the Internet at

The commission's main recommendation is that governments at all levels abandon the fragmented chemical-by-chemical approach in favor of a more "holistic" and integrated method. It wants government regulators to consider a variety of chemicals simultaneously, including diverse sources of the same contaminants and the ecological, health, and economic risks they pose. The commission also strongly recommends that "stakeholders" - i.e., the public, private companies, advocacy groups, and regulators - be included in all stages of the process: defining the problem in context, analyzing the risks, exploring options, and then making and implementing final decisions.

The panel says this can all be accomplished at the administrative level, and that no new law is needed. It does, however, recommend repealing the Delaney clause, an action Congress recently took, replacing the "zero tolerance" standard with a ban on any contaminant in food that poses a "reasonable chance of harm." The commission says Congress should refrain from legislating levels of acceptable risk. It is currently touring the country to discuss its draft study and is accepting comments until Aug. 9.

The recommendations, if implemented, would lead to improved environmental and public-health regulation at all levels of government. Including the public and interested parties at all levels of the process, instead of only after decisions are made, would ensure that everyone's concerns are taken into account. Then when a final decision is made, the various parties have bought on, eliminating potential years of court disputes.

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