Chemicals are everywhere, they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. According to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory of chemicals there are more than 84,000 chemical substances, as defined in TSCA today. These chemicals include organics, inorganic, polymers, and UVCBs (chemical substances of Unknown or Variable composition, Complex reaction products, and Biological materials). Yet, very few of these chemicals have been evaluated to health risks because under TSCA the EPA can only require testing for existing chemicals when there is evidence of harm. EPA's New Chemicals program tries to manage the potential risk from chemicals new to the marketplace. For purposes of regulation under TSCA, if a chemical is on the TSCA Inventory, the substance is considered an "existing" chemical.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) has found widespread exposure to some chemicals throughout the population that they tested. Samples are collected from participants in CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is an ongoing survey that samples the U.S. population every two years for 212 chemicals. Each two year sample consists of about 2,400 people.
Findings indicate widespread exposure to some commonly used industrial chemicals and raises the question of exposure to the thousands of other chemicals out in our environment. Our ability to identify chemical concentrations at parts per trillion has opened the door to a raft of concerns and questions.
It has been believed for hundreds of years that the toxicity of a chemical is related to its dose (in addition to a person's individual susceptibility). The philosophy that small amounts were of no health consequence has been the cornerstone of toxicology and regulation, but that has come into question. For most the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to every day, tools are needed to determine whether exposure even at extremely low levels is a cause for concern or if the chemicals can be metabolized to a more toxic form.
Out of thousands upon thousands of chemicals in commerce today, very few have been fully evaluated for potential health effects. Until recently when screening assays became available it was impossible. Scientists from EPA, NTP, and NCATS are now using screening assays to evaluate the potential health effects of thousands of chemicals to choose the ones to look at further to consider regulating. This screening uses automated methods that allow for a large number of chemicals to be rapidly evaluated for a specific type of biological activity.
However, the assays in current use do not incorporate chemical metabolism, so they would miss chemicals that are metabolized to a more toxic form in the body where impact could be magnified. The challenge announced by the EPA, “Transform Tox Testing Challenge: Innovating for Metabolism,” is designed to encourage the science community to find new ways to incorporate physiological levels of chemical metabolism into screening assays, using both prestige and modest cash awards. The winning screening tool will help regulators more accurately assess effects of chemicals and better identify the highest risk chemicals that regulating or eliminating will deliver the biggest impact to protect human health. This is how EPA gets things done in the modern age.
The goal of the current award is to generate both interest and results from the scientific community. Teams of scientists will compete in three stages for a total award of $1 million. The first stage, opened last week and will be closing April 8, 2016 seeks ideas for designs for a test that could be further developed. Up to ten submissions may receive a prize of $10,000 each and an invitation to continue on to the next stage.
The second stage requires a prototype that demonstrates the proposed idea in use. Up to five participants may be awarded up to $100,000 each and invited to participate in the final stage. The final stage requires a commercially viable method or technology for EPA and its partners to demonstrate and test. One participant will win the final prize of $400,000 for delivery of a method or device that can provide metabolic analysis to high speed screening assays. Good luck, we will all be winners if this succeeds.