3 Things the Chemical Industry Needs to Do to Keep Us Safe From Toxic Products

This week the chemical industry is meeting in Baltimore for their annual GlobalChem Conference. Top on their agenda is how best to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our federal law for overseeing chemical safety. This is welcome news because TSCA is failing to protect public health and the environment from toxic chemicals.   

Under TSCA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required testing of only a few hundred of the 80,000 chemicals on the market; and have regulated only five. Meanwhile cancer, reproductive disorders, and other health problems linked to toxic chemicals by peer-reviewed scientific studies, are on the rise. The possibility of substantive TSCA reform marks a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve an out-of-date law that will affect the health of Americans for decades to come.  

The chemical industry's position in favor of reform, however, is a very recent phenomenon and bears some scrutiny. Until February of last year they had defended the current law. What changed?  

While the federal government and the chemical industry turned a deaf ear to the onslaught of peer-reviewed studies linking common chemicals to health problems, several states responded with their own new laws. Major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target decided to drop products containing hot button chemicals from their shelves. Other companies, like Staples and Kaiser Permanente, began to develop policies to weed out problem chemicals from their operations. The chemical industry feels these type of developments have created a chaotic environment for them, and would like the certainty that would come with federal reform.  

So while the change of heart by the chemical industry is welcome, the motivation behind it suggests even closer examination of their proposals. Federal reform should protect public health first and foremost -- with benefits to the chemical industry flowing to those companies that help deliver it most.   

The coalition of nearly 200 public health and environmental advocates that I work for -- Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families -- crafted a detailed platform to address TSCA, which boils down to three simple ideas.

First, the chemical industry should be required to develop basic health and safety information for all chemicals, and make that information public.  

Secondly, EPA should be able to restrict, rather than further study, the relatively small group of chemicals that are already widely understood to be a problem. This includes the class of chemicals that are known to persist in the environment and build up in the food chain. It also includes chemicals where EPA has been sitting on reams of information for 20 years. The formaldehyde that most recently made headlines as a contaminant in the trailers used to house refugees of Hurricane Katrina is probably the best example. To require lengthy new assessments for these groups would needlessly postpone action, and waste precious resources, that could protect public health and the environment.  

Finally, for the vast majority of chemicals that will need a new scientific assessment, the latest science and real-world scenarios should be considered. Right now agencies often pretend that we're exposed to a chemical one use at a time. In the real world, people are exposed to the same chemical from multiple sources. Also, different chemicals can often act in concert against a particular part of the body. Reform should reflect these real world conditions and use the latest methodology articulated by the National Academy of Sciences in its 2008 report on chemical assessment.  

The chemical industry's proposals fall short on each of these points. They want the EPA to use the limited information available now to identify priority chemicals. These chemicals would then be the only ones subjected to new information requirements and new scientific review. They want to review the chemicals on a use-by-use basis, ignoring real world conditions. They also oppose allowing EPA to move to the action phase even for those chemicals where the hazards and exposure are widely understood.  

Though the sides are still far apart, I'm optimistic that reform will happen in the near future, maybe even this year. TSCA modernization is about making chemicals and products safer; preserving American manufacturing jobs in a world market demanding safer goods; and reaping the benefits that advancements in chemistry have fostered in our daily lives.  

If the chemical industry can support substantive reform, they will get the certainty they seek, and the public support that has often eluded them. Congress and President Obama will also get a major public health and environmental achievement.  


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