“Excuse Me, Sir, Are There Chemicals in That?” Why TSCA Reform Needs to Improve Our Chemical Safety

, lead analyst, Center for Science and Democracy | November 6, 2015, 3:32 pm EDT
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As any air traffic controller will tell you, sometimes having more information can be a burden.  As a pregnant environmental engineer with pollutant exposure knowledge, I’ve never been more convinced of this.  Knowing that there are chemicals in the environment that could be harmful to my growing baby makes me hyper-aware of what I’m exposed to, for how long, and at what quantities.

But a bigger challenge for me and countless others concerned about their chemical exposure is the fact that it isn’t only environmental pollutants that we should worry about, but also our exposure to chemicals through consumer products. As I’ve noted before, I had always assumed that if a product was on the market, it was because our public protections had ensured that it was safe. But even a cursory look at our chemical policies shows that this is far from the truth.

Less than one percent of the chemicals in commercial use have been tested for safety. A stronger TSCA would better protect people from harmful chemicals in every day products, like certain plastic items at dollar stores. Photo: Flickr/Nerissa's ring

Less than one percent of the chemicals in commercial use have been tested for safety. A stronger TSCA would better protect people from harmful chemicals in everyday products, like certain plastic items at dollar stores. Photo: Flickr/Nerissa’s ring

Our broken chemical policy

The law governing our use of chemicals in consumer products is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA was passed in 1976 and is sorely in need of an update. The law has been overwhelmingly ineffective at regulating the safety of chemicals used in commercial products. Today there are some 84,000 chemicals registered for commercial use, and the EPA has been able to regulate just nine—far less than one percent!

As a result, many of the products we use every day contain toxic chemicals at quantities that could be harmful. A recent study by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, run by Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, for example, tested 164 products sold at dollar stores and found that 81 percent of them contained one or more toxic chemicals. Moreover, the toxicity of dollar store products is likely to disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color who rely more on dollar stores to meet their needs. Retail stores can take action by choosing products without chemicals of concern, but a great deal of our toxic chemical exposure should be eliminated by a better chemical policy at the federal level.

Reforming TSCA

Thankfully, due in part to the efforts of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of more than 450 organizations throughout the country including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Congress has recognized this need for reforming our chemical policy and is now in the process of updating TSCA. It’s not yet clear exactly how strong the new version of the bill will be, but we certainly know what needs to be in it, in order to better protect us from harmful chemicals in consumer products:

  • EPA authority and capacity to review and regulate more chemicals. Under the current law, the EPA has very limited resources to review the safety of many, many chemicals. The result is that the vast majority of chemicals in use go unregulated. A new TSCA should fix this situation. Industry fees and funding from Congress should ensure EPA has the staff and other resources it needs to fulfill this mission.
  • A strong role for the states in chemical safety: In the absence of a strong federal policy regulating chemicals, many states—including California, Washington, Maine, Connecticut, and New York—have taken initiatives to set their own strong standards. To the largest extent possible, a new law should respect current state laws and ensure that states are free to protect their citizens from unsafe chemicals in the future until the EPA takes strong action. States also should be free to impose restrictions on chemical uses that the EPA does not address in its regulations.
  • Independence from industry interference. As a recent UCS report demonstrated, the chemical industry has been a powerful force in influencing policy outcomes around chemical regulation. When it comes to TSCA, we know the industry, working largely through its major trade association the American Chemistry Council, wants to see a reformed law that enables it to operate as close as possible to business as usual. A strong TSCA law should not micromanage how the EPA uses science.

From my own efforts to prevent chemical exposure of my expectant baby to the efforts of the Campaign for Healthier Solutions in getting chemicals out of dollar store products, it is clear that we need improved chemical policies to protect us. I’ll be watching closely as Congress decides on a policy. Ultimately, I hope my baby will grow up in a world where I and millions of mothers like me, can rely on the government to keep us safe.

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