Manufactured Chemicals Are Scary: How Much Do You Know?

February 1, 2016 | 3:17 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

There are more than 80,000 chemicals currently in production in the United States. At my desk as I write this, there are chemicals in the chair I am sitting in, the carpets on the floor, the cleaners used for the room, paint, products on the desk, the container for my lunch, and on and on. Only about 200 of these manufactured chemicals have been tested for safety by the Environmental Protection Agency over the last 30 years, because of lack of resources and the difficulties of the process that the current law has set up to require testing.

That means, in effect, we don’t know how safe many of the products we use every day are for the workers who make them, the people who transport them, and the consumers who use them. We just don’t know. But shouldn’t we, the public, have the right to more and better information in a democracy?

Do you have good information about even basic safety issues regarding chemicals?  Here is a simple quiz just to help answer that question for yourself.  Perhaps we can easily answer all the questions, but think about the choices people make every day and how little information they have to go on.  More to the point, in our society most people likely believe that dangerous materials are carefully managed to ensure children, vulnerable populations, and all of us are kept safe.  But they would be wrong…

But now there is a chance to make things a lot better. New versions of chemical safety legislation have passed the House and Senate. Neither version is really sufficient to protect the American public. But taking the best of both bills might give us a chance for real reform.

Who bears the greatest burden

The plants that produce most of those chemicals are surrounded by what are often called “fenceline” communities, people who live near the plants and the transportation infrastructure that is connected to those facilities. While you might think that people moved into an area near the plants and chose to live nearby, the opposite is often true—the community was there and the plants located or grew around the community. Fenceline communities are almost always poor, and usually people of color. They also have documented high rates of public health problems such as asthma, cancer and other diseases—and fewer resources to deal with the incredible challenges that they face. The rules that are supposed to reduce the risks for fenceline communities and the workers in chemical facilities have not been updated in 25 years, though they are under consideration now. The process for updating the rules is moving very slowly. The EPA needs to get a move on.

There are about 30,000 chemical accidents reported every year, resulting in more than 1000 deaths. The number of accidents is known to be under-reported. Of course there are some very high profile accidents, such as in the West, TX or Geismar, LA plants, which resulted in multiple deaths. Some of these are investigated by the federal Chemical Safety Board. But the results seem to get much less attention than, say, an airline accident investigation. We know that the public expects better. Our elected officials need to hear that we expect more.

Too much influence

It is critically important to push for better rules that really protect public health and safety, and do so for all of us. But know too that there is a powerful lobby, led by the American Chemistry Council, that is fighting every step of the way to keep the rules weak. Our report found that the ACC spends about $11 million per year in lobbying to reduce regulation, which means reducing public health and safety, worker, and environmental protections. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that all companies in the industry want to weaken the rules. But the major industry lobbying groups sure seem to continually send that message.

So take the quiz (and do well!) but more importantly—take action! Let our representatives know that we need strong chemical safety laws and the rules that implement them.