Senate Hearing to Tackle Hazardous Chemicals

A senate subcommittee hearing, taking place today, will finally tackle the sticky problem of chemical regulation.

November 16, 2009

"Say, Bill, after the hearings we may finally be able to take off these suits."

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you're sick of hearing about yet another chemical in your canned soup or cancer causer in your sofa, you're not alone. The public is growing increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of chemical regulation in the U.S., and today, a hearing at the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will take the first step at reforming an antiquated, 30-year-old chemical regulation law.

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THE DETAILS: The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was enacted in 1976 to ensure that chemicals manufactured, imported, processed, or distributed in the United States didn't pose any "unreasonable risks to human health or the environment". The law required chemical companies to inform the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the chemicals they were using in products sold in this country, but it put the burden of proof on the EPA to show whether those chemicals posed risks. In theory, it should have worked, except for the fact that when the law was enacted, 62,000 chemicals were already in use, and since then, that number has grown to nearly 80,000. Those that were grandfathered in when the law was passed never had any adequate toxicity testing, and neither manufacturers nor the EPA has adequately tested many of those introduced since. The law also gave the EPA very little authority to ban or regulate the chemicals in the TSCA inventory. Take asbestos, for example: A court ruling overturned the agency's ban on asbestos after claiming that the EPA hadn't adequately shown that asbestos posed an "unreasonable risk" to human health. More recently, the law gave the EPA no authority to do anything about trailers housing Hurricane Katrina victims that were found to have dangerously high levels of the carcinogen formaldehyde.

"Publicly available [toxicity] information, information that you can use to make decisions, exists for just 3,000 to 5,000 chemicals. For the vast majority, there is no publicly available data," says Andy Igrejas, National Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 106 health and environmental groups pushing for more stringent chemical regulation. "The fact that we don't have basic toxicity and safety information on all these chemicals is the largest and most serious flaw," says Tracey Easthope, PhD, environmental health director of the advocacy group Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

WHAT IT MEANS: We have safety data on just a fraction of chemicals, and some of those that wind up in products we use every day have been linked to a number of chronic diseases. Flame retardants used in furniture and electronics have been linked to thyroid problems in adults and learning disorders in children. Bisphenol A, used in plastics and the linings of canned food and soda, has been linked to obesity, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and inflammation (a precursor to heart disease). And phthalates, chemicals used to keep plastics soft and fragrances from dissipating, have been connected to obesity, diabetes, asthma, and genital abnormalities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found many of these chemicals in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested for them.

Igrejas' group, which will be one of the advocacy groups represented at the hearing today, recently conducted a survey finding that 84 percent of people are concerned that EPA has required health and safety testing of only 200 chemicals on the market over the years that the TSCA has been in effect. Growing concern, combined with a barrage of studies on chemicals ranging from bisphenol A in baby bottles to formaldehyde in mobile homes, has led a number of state and county governments to enact their own chemical-regulation laws, and a number of retailers, such as WalMart and Staples, to include "green chemistry" requirements for their suppliers. "Staples has been very outspoken on this issue. They found that when they demanded to know what's in that toner, what's in that furniture, what kind of flame retardant is in that electronic gizmo, they couldn't get answers from their suppliers," Igrejas says. "This led to companies wanting to get in front of the problem and enacting policies that allowed them to identify and weed out the kinds of things that could be PR problems or health-and-safety headaches down the line."

All those efforts have led the American Chemistry Council, an industry group for chemical manufacturers, to finally come to the reform table, he says. Such "retail regulation" and the spattering of state and local laws can become a huge problem for chemical manufacturers, as the group noted in a release posted to its website, and the two combined have led the group to reverse its position, which six months ago, says Igrejas, was that TSCA was working as it was intended. "This industry is widely distrusted by the public," says Igrejas. "And they have no credible response to the science."

If you want to take action, call your congressmen and senators and tell them you want chemical regulation that protects citizens, and not chemical manufacturers. You can also take part in the "Million Baby Crawl" being sponsored by the green cleaning company Seventh Generation. The company is organizing marches around the country in support of more comprehensive laws to protect kids, the most sensitive population of all to the wanton use of harmful substances.