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Protecting public health: a story of chemical regulation

23 June 2020
Chemical regulation helps keep you safe behind the scenes.
Chemicals are ubiquitous and can be useful 'friends' or dangerous hazards; Chemical Regulation is vital for tipping the balance in humanity's favour.

Chemistry and chemical regulation in everyday life

Prometheus gave us fire, and science allowed us to harness the power of chemistry. Just like fire, chemicals are extraordinarily useful, but can also be dangerous. Chemicals are everywhere: the polymers that form your plastic keyboard, the dye which gives colour to your clothes, the scent of your shampoo, and the surfactant molecules in soap which inactivate viruses like Covid-19 when you wash your hands—which helps prevent the spread. These are just a few examples of chemicals you encounter every day.

Chemical regulation helps protect you from getting 'burnt' —so to speak—while reaping the rewards of chemical use. Even though you may not think of chemical regulation when you go shopping, it is working behind the scenes to help keep you safe. It is an important factor as to why the majority of us don’t give a second thought to the safety of chemical containing products we buy and use daily—because we are confident products containing such chemicals on supermarket shelves are safe and that someone has somehow assured the safe use of these chemicals.

How are industrial chemicals regulated in Australia?

The Department of Health's National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) is Australia’s industrial chemicals regulator that regulates the import, manufacture and use of industrial chemicals.

The national scheme helps protect the Australian people and the environment by assessing the human health and environmental risks of industrial chemicals and providing information to promote their safe use.  We help to manage chemical risks to consumers, workers and the environment through interagency collaboration with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Safe Work Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration and Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, respectively. NICNAS achieves common, global regulatory goals in co-operation with overseas counterparts such as the European Union's European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Furthermore, NICNAS is key to Australia's participation in international regulatory agreements, empowering Australia to protect and pursue Australia's human health and environmental interests with respect to industrial chemicals at the global level.

If a supplier or manufacturer wishes to import or produce an industrial chemical—or products containing them—for commercial purposes in Australia, they must be registered with NICNAS. They are also required to check the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances (AICS) regarding any conditions placed on the chemical’s use or import. If they are to manufacture or use a chemical already included on the AICS under conditions different to those specified in its listing, or import or manufacture a chemical not already listed on the AICS, an assessment is undertaken to determine the potential human health and environmental hazards that the chemical poses.

What is it like working at NICNAS?

Having completed several research projects at the University of Sydney, I applied for the School of Chemistry's Year In Industry Program, leading me to work for NICNAS.

NICNAS is currently transitioning to become the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (AICIS) which will bring a greater focus on higher risk chemicals, increased compliance capabilities and the diminished use of animal test data by companies applying for an assessment of chemicals used in cosmetics. I have been helping with this transition in a range of capacities from procurement contracts to meetings with other government agencies, data analysis, as well as training and undertaking chemical risk assessments.

I have undertaken an assessment of styrene—the precursor to the widely used plastic, polystyrene—due to the emergence of new data spurring the need for a re-assessment. Armed with my studies and newfound knowledge from NICNAS’s toxicology course, I was able to tackle this challenge and evaluate toxicology data regarding styrene's potential to harm human health through a weight-of-evidence approach. This scientific approach dictates it is not rigorous enough to simply 'trust' the status of peer-reviewed research and mindlessly summarise the information. It demands that an assessor evaluate the merits of peer reviewed research before presenting a synthesis of such findings accounting for the comparative 'weight', value and validity of a battery of evidence. Once the assessment passes several rounds of peer review, it will be published on the NICNAS website for public viewing and comments.

What have you learnt from your time at NICNAS?

I have gained a variety of skills from toxicology and chemical risk assessment to experience in international contract negotiation for procurement, learning how to read legislation, and data analysis abilities at NICNAS.

For me, an important part of working for NICNAS are the values of the Australian Public Service: to provide frank, impartial, timely, and accurate advice in the service of the Australian Public. These values strongly appeal to some of the core reasons for my passion for science. I am proud to follow in my mother's footsteps who was a public servant for another Commonwealth department. I look forward to learning more and tackling new challenges throughout the remainder of my year in industry.

Written by Louis Casey

Second-year student, Bachelor of Science and Advanced Studies, University of Sydney