Number of Chemicals in Products Underestimated, EPA Says

The number of chemicals in products people use at home, work, or school typically is underestimated, an EPA exposure researcher said Aug. 31.

Anyone trying to estimate the number and concentration of chemicals in products has to go beyond safety data sheets, ingredient labels, and other listings, according to Katherine Phillips, a research chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Exposure Research Laboratory.

During an EPA webinar, Phillips described research the agency is doing to help regulatory staff and other decision-makers determine when a chemical has the potential to harm people or the environment. The research is designed to help the agency address the tens of thousands of chemicals in products people spray, touch, sit on, slather on, and otherwise come into contact with.

The EPA needs to answer a few central questions: Which ones should it worry about? Which ones should it evaluate for health and ecological risks?

Choosing to focus on chemicals unlikely to cause problems could waste companies’ money as they invest time and research to provide the agency with chemical use and exposure and other data.

Taxpayers’ money also could be squandered if the EPA unnecessarily analyzes information from academia, unions, advocacy organizations, and other groups.

However, choosing to focus on chemicals that put people’s health at risk or hurt the environment could prevent disease, fish kills, and other problems that cause harm.

Research Underpins Regulations

The research Phillips and her colleagues are doing could influence how the agency picks chemicals and pesticides for further evaluation and possible regulation. For example, the research office is examining ways it can help the EPA’s chemicals office determine which chemicals are priorities for risk evaluations that could lead to chemical use restrictions or other regulations.

The Toxic Substances Control Act amendments of 2016 require the EPA to examine chemical uses and exposures as it decides whether a chemical poses an unreasonable risk that requires some type of regulatory control.

The Food Quality Protection Act and Safe Drinking Water Act amendments of 2006 required the EPA to establish a program to select chemicals that could mimic, block, or alter hormonal function. Subsequent screens and toxicity tests that the EPA could require companies to conduct would determine whether those chemicals actually caused harm. The EPA’s pesticide office is working with agency researchers to do a better job selecting hormonally active chemicals.

Rough Estimates

EPA’s exposure research has important limits, Phillips said. A chemical’s presence in a product does not imply exposure, she said. A chemical may be in carpet padding that homeowners would not often touch, she said.

Nor does the presence of a chemical mean the body would absorb it, Phillips said. If there’s no exposure to a chemical or if it doesn’t get absorbed it doesn’t pose a risk.

EPA’s exposure estimates remain rough approximations and much work remains to be done, she said. Yet, the agency’s ability to identify chemicals in products is improving as the agency adds more databases to its search capacity and builds on research it and other scientists have done, she said.

Company Can’t Always Know

One lesson the EPA has learned so far, Phillips said, is that no matter how hard a consumer product company tries to list all the ingredients in its product on a label or product formulation sheet, it can’t know all the chemicals in that formulation. She referred to manufacturers and retailers like the Procter & Gamble Co. , Seventh Generation, Inc., and Target Brands, Inc. that increasingly are pledging to disclose more or all of the ingredients in products they make or sell on their shelves.

Despite such efforts, companies may not know about some of the chemicals in such products, Phillips said. Chemicals may leach from packaging, be present as byproducts in packages of oil breakdown or other compounds they mix together, or be created by chemical reactions within a packaged product, Phillips said.

Those are among the reasons she said EPA researchers are scouring many databases in their exposure identification efforts.

Illustrative Databases

EPA’s exposure laboratory is working with such resources as the Functional Use (FUse) Database, which lists more than 14,000 chemicals that have more than 200 functions. Chemicals may add color, help oil separate from fabric, add fragrance, or provide other functions in products such as paints, soap, shampoo, and waxes.

The Chemical and Product Categories database draws on information compiled from other countries and regulatory agencies including the Food and Drug Administration. It contains use and function information on more than 43,000 chemicals.

Phillips is among the EPA scientists who will present during an International Society of Exposure Science annual meeting in Research Triangle Park, N.C., in October.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at

For More Information

Information about the EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory is available at on the exposure conference are available at

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