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New report urges stronger regulation of PBT chemicals, with focus on international harmonization

December 2, 2013
Bloomington, Indiana --

A group of worrisome chemicals is inconsistently identified and managed, according to a new report by a team of 11 international experts, including four from Indiana University.

The chemicals persist in the environment, bioaccumulate in food chains and exhibit toxicity in standardized tests, and so are identified as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, or PBT. Potential PBTs are used throughout industry as heavy-duty lubricants, water repellants, flame retardants, solvents, surfactants, paints and stabilizers in plastics, dyes and pigments.

PBTs are increasingly linked to adverse effects in humans and animals, building on early scientific studies of DDT, dioxin, mercury and PCBs.

The researchers say 20 or fewer PBTs were originally thought to be in use, but recent studies indicate that a more accurate number is between 100 and 1,000, depending on how they are identified. Regulation of the chemicals is critical, but differences in identification and management approaches from country to country can undermine the effectiveness of policies. The researchers say that efforts to harmonize approaches can also reduce trade barriers.

Todd Royer“Regulating PBTs is a global challenge,” said Todd Royer, associate professor at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and one of the report’s authors. “These pollutants can travel across national and geographic boundaries far from where they are released. The number of PBTs is small relative to the total number of chemicals in commerce but large enough to put substantial burdens on regulatory agencies.”

John D. GrahamThe report, "Scientific and Policy Analysis of Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic Chemicals: A Comparison of Practices in Asia, Europe, and North America," will be presented at IU-sponsored workshops in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec. 4 and in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17. The international team of 11 authors includes practitioners and scholars. In addition to Royer, Indiana University authors are John D. Graham, dean of SPEA; doctoral student Adam Abelkop; and IU researcher Mallory Mueller.

Here are their key findings:

  • The U.S., Canada, Japan and the European Union do not always agree on the definition of a PBT, and their policymakers vary widely on how they use PBT information.
  • No clear-cut international framework has been developed to guide determinations as to whether the benefits of PBT use in a particular application justify the potential risks.
  • Regulators and industry do not yet fully exploit information on the extent of PBT releases and exposures when setting regulatory priorities and evaluating risks and benefits on a use-by-use basis.
  • Regulators increasingly use a “weight of evidence” approach rather than numeric criteria to determine whether a chemical is a PBT. “Without proper guidance,” the authors say, “PBT determinations may become, to varying degrees, subjective, unpredictable, inconsistent and not fully replicable.”

The authors also make recommendations for action, including:

  • To smooth trade and avoid duplication of effort, greater harmonization is needed in data gathering and assessments.
  • Because PBT determinations have so much environmental and economic impact, governments and industry need to make larger investments in research programs.
  • Better tools of green and sustainable chemistry are needed to identify chemical innovations that can meet the needs of industry and consumers while minimizing risks from exposure to PBTs.

The report concludes with what the authors consider a “modest proposal for regulatory cooperation.” They say there is no immediate need for an international treaty, but informal government-to-government talks could settle many PBT-related issues.

Reporters may contact Jim Hanchett at 812-856-3488 or jimhanch@indiana.edu to request a copy of the report.

About the report:

The report titled, "Scientific and Policy Analysis of Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic Chemicals: A Comparison of Practices in Asia, Europe, and North America," is the peer-reviewed work of the Indiana University study team in conjunction with the Consensus Panel on PBT Science and Policy. They met in Washington, D.C., and in Brussels, conducted more than 50 interviews and analyzed existing policy and scientific research. The American Chemistry Council, an association of chemical manufacturers and users, funded the project without restriction. The authors undertook the study independently without any prior review by the council. To read the full report, go here.