When it comes to how our government regulates potentially dangerous synthetic chemicals, Rolf U. Halden and Robert S. Lawrence have some big numbers to throw around. The two recently analyzed 143,000 peer-reviewed research papers related to what they've dubbed "chemicals of emerging concern" and determined that the span of time that passes between safety issues being logged and regulators acting is about 14 years—with some high-profile outliers, like the FDA's 40-year consideration of triclosan. It's a process that they see as studded with issues: For one, the EPA and FDA regulate chemicals by use, meaning the EPA is looking at one set (those that touch the environment) while the FDA is considering another (those that touch our skin).
And if an agency does decide to regulate a chemical compound (there are 84,000 of them being commercially used now, with that number growing by as much as 1,000 a year), they do so individually, rather than targeting the entire class of chemicals it belongs to. That's a big problem. "We should regulate chemicals as we understand them: in groups," they write in the New York Times, and they have some classes in mind: organohalogens (triclosan is in this class), along with organobromines (flame retardants) and organofluorines (which lurk in food packaging). "Synthetic chemicals are vital to our society," they allow. "But we should be doing everything possible to make sure they are safe." Read the full column here. (Read more Triclosan stories.)