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Oral history interview of the toxic substances control act from the perspective of Warren R. Muir

  • 2010-Jan-22

This oral history is one in a series that looks at the history of the Toxic Substances Control Act from the perspectives of the individuals involved in its creation, implementation, and execution.

Warren Muir received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Amherst College. He then moved to Northwestern University’s PhD program and was captured by the new societal awareness of environmental issues. He joined Students for a Better Environment and with a colleague published the first list of phosphates in detergents. During this time Earth Day originated, and demands for governmental protection took off. Muir was recruited into the Council on Environmental Quality, whose initiatives included the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Safe Drinking Water Acts; these acts would control chemicals through production, distribution, and use instead of the cleanup-contaminate approach used for drugs, food, pesticides, etc. He says the group was small but powerful.

The first hurdle was the lack of knowledge of the universe of chemicals: Who made them, how many were there, how much was there, what were their effects? Should there be a registry, and if so how would it work? The next hurdle was the disagreement between the houses of the U.S. Congress, abetted by lobbying from manufacturers. Finally J. Clarence Davies’ report for CEQ was drafted into legislation and passed as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). At that point it was handed over to the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for implementation. The EPA was slow to figure out how to use TSCA. They first developed a chemical inventory and then rules for production and use of new chemicals. Muir discusses several of TSCA’s rules and their successes and failures.

Muir founded Hampshire Research Associates, which worked in a number of different areas, mostly pollution prevention. Through INFORM, Inc. Muir and David Sarokin made suggestions that led to the formation of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI); TRI’s chemical analysis of waste led to the Pollution Prevention Act. Hampshire developed the database and wrote the reports for the EPA. Muir moved on to a pollutant release and transfer register for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He says that voluntary actions by manufacturers have also decreased pollution.

Muir says that only small fraction of uses of a wide range of chemicals causes problems; and that uses are dynamic. He believes, therefore, that a centralized denoting of some chemicals as priority chemicals is not useful. He has five points for improvement: choosing a use-based approach; gathering and tracking information; narrowing the definition of “confidential” in confidential business information (CBI), which he says severely limits sharing of information; making producers responsible; and retaining and improving the new-chemical review. Information is crucial and its availability is increasing exponentially with new technology. Muir maintains that an independent review of the EPA and of the various efforts of the states would be illuminating. Both regulators and manufacturers should have kind of a “general duty clause.”

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