Preventing Pollution? U.S. Toxic Chemicals and Pesticides Policies and Sustainable Development

September 2002
ELR 11018
Lynn R. Goldman

This Article considers the extent to which the United States has made progress in the management of chemicals and pesticides in light of the commitments it made in 1992 to promote sustainable development. While pesticides are types of chemicals, they are managed differently and this Article will employ the legal distinctions between the two. The term "chemicals" refers to substances that are manufactured, processed, or used in commerce, other than those marketed as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, or food additives. Thus, the term includes a wide spectrum of substances, including metals and both organic and inorganic chemicals. "Pesticides," on the other hand, means substances that are marketed as having the ability to kill or repel "pests," chemicals such as insecticides, fungicides (kill molds and fungi), herbicides (weed killers), and rodenticides (rat killers). This Article encompasses environmental management efforts to directly regulate chemicals, promote "right-to-know," encourage pollution prevention, and regulate pesticides. In addition, it examines several cross-cutting issues: persistent organic pollutants (POPs) or, as they are sometimes called in the United States, persistent bioaccumulating toxics (PBTs), and biotechnology (genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that manufacture chemicals or are used as chemicals). It does not, however, address efforts to set standards for chemicals as pollutants in the context of the regulation of air and water pollution and in the case of waste disposal.

The basic structure of the domestic laws of the United States with respect to chemicals was established in 1972 for pesticides (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)) and in 1976 for industrial chemicals (Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)). In the face of widespread concern about the proliferation of chemicals and pesticides in commerce, and the unknown risks, the U.S. Congress had given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority over testing of chemicals and pesticides, review of new introductions, and assessment and management of risks of existing chemicals. In 1988, Congress had amended and strengthened FIFRA. In 1986, it enacted the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA), thereby establishing the toxic release inventory (TRI) for tracking the releases and transfers of chemicals from industry. In 1990, it adopted the Pollution Prevention Act (PPA). Together, these four statutes form the legal framework for regulation of chemicals and pesticides in the United States.

Dr. Goldman (M.D., M.P.H.) is a Professor, Environmental Health Sciences, at The Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health. She served as Assistant Administrator, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1993-1998.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations gathered in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. Prof. John C. Dernbach has edited a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, published by the Environmental Law Institute in July 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article appears as a chapter in that book. Further information on the book is available at or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

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Preventing Pollution? U.S. Toxic Chemicals and Pesticides Policies and Sustainable Development

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