Many of us are concerned about the safety of the oil dispersants BP is pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.
However, as it turns out, the controversy surrounding their use underscores an even larger problem: Federal legislation regulating the use of chemicals in the US is deficient, ineffective and outdated.
If you’re like me, you probably think that someone, somewhere, at some time has tested and approved the chemical ingredients in the products we use every day. You probably think that chemicals such as the toluene in paint, the BPA in receipt paper, the formaldehyde in dishwashing liquid, and the phthalates in shower curtains have been thoroughly evaluated and proven to be safe. Someone out there is ‘minding the store’ . . .right?
As remarkable as it sounds, most of the chemicals in the materials and products we all commonly use have never been fully tested.
Essentially, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) –-which became law more than 30 years ago, in 1976 –allowed the 62,000 industrial chemical in use at the time to remain on the market without any additional analysis. Since then, EPA has required testing of only a few hundred of those chemicals, and more than 20,000 new commercial compounds have been introduced – the vast majority with little or no health data.
In short, according to Richard Denison, Ph.D, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), TSCA has offered scant protection and ultimately, it has left Americans at risk of exposure to potentially thousands of harmful chemicals. (See a discussion of who’s at risk from toxic chemicals here.)
“TSCA was designed to be the engine in the federal battery of laws to provide data on the safety of the chemicals we use, and except for pesticides and drugs, TSCA is the only federal law that provides such authority for general testing of chemicals. But, the truth is, it has failed miserably at that task,” he said. “The use of inadequately tested dispersants (in the Gulf) is just one example of the failure of this law to drive safety information to the public, to companies and to the marketplace.”
As it stands now, TSCA (pronounced “ToS-Ka”) is problematic on several fronts. (See the law’s major flaws outlined here). For example, TSCA doesn’t require chemical producers to prove that their chemicals are safe. Instead, it places the burden of proving a chemical is causing harm on EPA. As a result, in order to regulate a chemical, the law requires that EPA prove the compound presents an “unreasonable risk.”
In practice, this standard has been impossible for EPA to meet. In fact, the only chemicals ever banned under TSCA are PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which were once widely used in transformers and electrical equipment. (It’s also worth noting that the PCB ban was established only because it was written by Congress into the original law.)
Fortunately, this spring, new legislation –called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 –was proposed to overhaul TSCA and resolve its flaws. This new Senate bill requires safety testing of all industrial chemicals and puts the burden of proof on industry. Under this legislation, chemicals would have to be proven safe before entering the market, and existing chemicals would have to be proven safe as a condition of staying on the market.
(Note: This coming Thursday, the House version of this bill is expected to be introduced. The House bill, based on the “discussion draft” that was introduced this spring is similar, but not identical to, this Senate bill and is likely to be called the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010. )
According to Denison, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 is beginning to attract attention from legislators, industry leaders and the general public, and recently, EDF began spearheading a campaign to help drive its passage. The I Am Not a Guinea Pig campaign (www.IamNotaGuineaPig.com) is designed to educate, build community and encourage action to pass updated federal policies that will offer protections from toxic chemicals.
“For the first time in decades, we have a chance to change chemical safety policy,” Denison explained. “We’re using the I Am Not a Guinea Pig campaign to build awareness and give people an opportunity to channel their outrage at the current law’s failings and direct it toward taking action.”
Although attempts at chemical regulation reform have been unsuccessful in the past, Denison said he senses a subtle shift in attitudes this time around, as more and more companies recognize the growing importance of globally-aligned chemical safety guidelines that are based on solid scientific research.
“This is much more nuanced, and many companies – especially those that use rather than produce chemicals — are playing a supportive role,” he said. “They want certainty. They want to have confidence in the safety of the chemicals they’re using.”
As Denison points out, companies today are increasingly worried about compliance. They’re increasingly worried about the potential disruptions caused if a key component of a supply chain is deemed unsafe. And, they’re increasingly worried about protecting their reputations.
“No one wants to be caught off-guard and then have to scramble,” he said. “No one wants to get caught in the ‘chemical of the month syndrome.’”
Still, Denison knows that passing a strong Safe Chemicals Act and shifting the burden of proof to chemical companies is likely to be an uphill battle.
“We’re challenging the status quo,” he said. “In the past, we have dealt pretty well with chemical exposures from things like cars and smoke stacks, but we haven’t dealt well with exposure through products. That’s been underappreciated. When it comes to chemicals, the assumption should be that there could be a health effect until proven otherwise, but that is a complete shift in approach to one that more closely resembles the way we regulate drugs and pesticides. It won’t be easy.”
Note: Richard Denison will be participating in a Twitter interview about the I Am Not a Guinea Pig campaign on Tuesday, July 27, from 3pm-4pm, Eastern. Follow the hasthtag #NAGP.