A two-year study by a presidential committee recommended yesterday that federal regulators crack down on potential hazards posed by dangerous chemicals in the environment or face the likelihood they will cause widespread death and disease.
"We can't wait around for people to start dropping," said Gus Speth, chairman of the Toxic Substances Strategy Committee. The group, which includes representatives from 18 federal agencies, was set up by President Carter in 1977 to look into potential problems with toxic chemicals.
Speth, a former environmentalist appointed this month to head the President's Council on Environmental Quality, said that while some new regulations should be enacted, most of the laws necessary for controlling dangerous chemicals are already on the books.
In its report, which is in draft form, the committee noted that health problems from chemical exposure are substantial. More than 100,000 workers are believed to die annually from exposure to toxic chemicals. Occupational exposure to carcinogens is believed to cause from 20 to 38 percent of all cancers, the committee said.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group here, immediately labeled the committee's report "a hodgepodge of concepts and recommendations that have been either disputed or discredited since the committee was created in 1977."
"The public must . . . make sure that any new governmental initiatives in this field be related to real needs, and not be stampeded into unnecessary actions and costly new government programs," the group said.
In addition to calling for stricter regulation of the chemical industry, the presidential committee report suggested that federal agencies "employ and seek wider public understanding of" several research concepts currently hotly contested by industry. They include:
Support for animal tests where large doses of potential carcinogens are administered to try and determine if they are responsible for cancer in humans. This concept drew fierce criticism from industry when it was used by the Food and Drug Administration to call for a ban on saccharin.
Support for the concept that once a chemical is found to cause cancer there is no known minimum "threshold" amount safe for humans.
Support for the idea that the U.S. cancer rate has substantially increased in recent years. The committee said cancer is the only major cause of death to rise since 1900, and, with 400,000 fatalities annually, is second only to heart disease as a cause of death in this country.
"There is no cancer epidemic from man-made chemicals," the association said, claiming that the concept has been rebutted by the National Academy of Sciences.
"Congress also has expressed its concern over extreme approaches by rejecting to date the banning of saccharin as a human carcinogen," the trade group said.
The most controversial element in the report, however, is likely to be the committee's support for tougher regulation. The panel noted that there are more than two dozen statutes on the books to control toxic chemicals.
But it called for additional federal legislation to give regulators more control over the cosmetic industry and hazardous waste sites such as the Love Canal in New York state.
The president recently proposed a $1.6 billion "super-fund" program for cleaning up more than 800 potentially hazardous waste sites in the United States. But some administration officials have criticized other efforts to regulate potentially toxic substances as inflationary.
"We want to make sure the regulations are absolutely no more expensive than necessary," Speth said. But, he added, preventing chemical hazards can be less costly than cleaning them up.
The report also advocates legislation to remove barriers that limit agencies from sharing trade secrets and confidential data. It said that federal regulatory agencies need additional funding to carry out their task.
"Prevention is the key to controlling diseases and environmental problems caused by toxic chemicals," the report says."To be effective, regulatory agencies often must act when the evidence of hazard is convincing but not certain."