The system regulating the U.S. chemical industry is polluted; but safety advocates, consumers and conscious businesses saw a sliver of light on Wednesday as the Senate took an important first step toward legislative reform.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee endorsed the Safe Chemicals Act, which would be the first change to federal chemicals regulation since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Passed in 1976, the Environmental Working Group (EGW) refers to TSCA as one of the weakest U.S. environmental laws, doing very little to protect the environment or Americans’ health.
“What we find now is whether it’s PCBs or phthalates or flame retardants, the chemical ends up everywhere—in our dust, in our water, in our food, in our bodies, in polar bears, in whales,” said Heather White, EWG’s chief of staff and general counsel. “And then we say, ‘Wait, something is wrong, tell us about this chemical.’ The [Safe Chemicals Act] would set that right. The companies would need to show the chemical is safe.”
Though this was just the first stage in a long, difficult process that will require votes on the Senate floor and action in the House of Representatives, it helped to build strong momentum for TSCA reform, said White.
According to the EWG, if passed, the bill would:
Ensure that all chemicals in the market pose a “reasonable certainty of no harm,” considered the gold standard for protecting children, and accounting for all chemical exposures.
Require all manufacturers to justify all claims of business confidentiality on chemicals and ensure that first responders and public safety personnel can access important safety information.
Require new chemicals to be screened before used in the marketplace.
- Protect states’ ability to pass stronger laws.
The paradigm shift
The Safe Chemicals Act would require manufacturers to prove that a chemical is safe before it enters the market, which is much different from the current system. This reform would have the biggest effect on corporations.
“Shifting the burden of proof and requiring companies to prove safety, as opposed to consumers or government proving harm, is a huge paradigm shift that is going to turn the chemical industry on its head,” said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund.
In addition, the government’s evaluation of “safety” also could change with new legislation. Rather than relying on the classic risk assessment approach—which looks at a hazard plus exposure—the Safe Chemicals Act considers aggregate exposure. This is relevant because of the number of chemicals Americans are exposed to daily and because research shows that even low-dose exposure can be dangerous, said Nudelman.
Though some manufacturers have made important changes to formulating and marketing, many more have resisted reform—and will continue to do so until enforced by the government, Nudelman said. She pointed out the plastic and food packaging industries as two of the least modernized industries, which have adopt practices that are significantly better for health and environment.
Why chemical reform is happening now
A combination of negative research about chemicals in everyday products, consumer awareness and shifts in some companies’ practices has contributed to government action.
“There are forward-thinking businesses that really get that there’s something in the environment that is making us sick, and they want to be part of the solution,” Nudelman said. “There’s a very well-established body of scientific evidence pointing to the presence of carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxins in everyday consumer products, and industrial processes that are being linked to a whole host of diseases that are on the rise.”
When it comes to health concerns of common chemicals, White noted that the most relevant research is the suite of studies showing how chemicals—many of which are relatively new—are now polluting Americans’ bodies, not just the environment.
“This issue isn’t about preserving a space far away; the environment that is impacted is our health. That helped move things forward,” she said.
A focus on children’s health (EWG research has shown that newborns are born with up to 300 industrial chemicals in their bodies, and flame retardants, tied to neurological damage, make their way into breast milk) and the President’s Cancer Panel in 2010 have raised consumer awareness and prompted government action, White said. This year alone government considered changes to chemical and cosmetic legislation for the first time in more than 30 years.
How to get involved
Consumers should continue to voice their concerns directly to manufacturers. However, in this critical time, reaching out to members of Congress will most affect long-term change.
“Contact them and say this matters to my family and me; I care about their health,” said Nudelman.
Here’s a list of resources to get started: