I always assumed that if chemicals were in use, they were safe. As a child, I’d play in the grass despite pesticide warning signs and never thought about my water bottle’s material. If there was evidence that the chemicals were harmful, we wouldn’t be allowed to use them, right? This is, of course, how it should work. But the reality is that special interests can get in the way of public health protections when it comes to our chemical policies. My new report shows just how harmful that influence can be.
The new UCS report focuses on the American Chemistry Council—the chemical manufacturing industry’s main trade association. Though the ACC might not be a household name, its influence on chemical policy has affected millions of Americans, and many of those chemicals are undoubtedly in your household.
ACC’s impact on the Toxic Substances Control Act
Primary among this influence recently has been the ACC’s work on reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA was passed in 1976 and is sorely in need of an update. The well-intentioned but ineffective law was meant to regulate the safety of chemicals used in commercial products. However, 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 detailed in the report, Congress is currently working on TSCA reform and the ACC has been keen to make sure the updated version promotes chemical industry interests over public health. In recent years—when TSCA has been under discussion in Congress—the trade group has poured more than $11 million dollars annually into lobbying spending, and has made generous political contributions to key members of Congress in charge of chemical reform.
The ACC has also supported versions of TSCA reform bills that include state preemption. In the absence of a strong federal policy, many states—including California, Washington, Maine, Connecticut, and New York—have passed their own chemical laws to better protect public health. The chemical industry, however, has pushed for a revised federal policy with a preemption clause that would override these state policies and replace them with a (likely weaker) federal chemical policy. If such a reform passed, the chemical industry could continue business as usual, manufacturing chemicals under few restrictions and without investing in or shifting to safer alternatives, while thousands of chemicals known to be harmful will flow into households, hiding inside new furniture, electronics or even food wrapping.
The report also shows how the ACC has sought to influence the ongoing trade negotiations between the U.S. and European Union. As detailed by my colleague Celia, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is aimed at increasing trade between the U.S. and EU by minimizing trade barriers.
Such an agreement will need to uphold high public health and safety protections that the negotiating nations have in place currently; however, the ACC has worked to minimize the inclusion of such protections in a deal. A leaked document revealed that the ACC and its European counterpart, the European Chemical Industry Council, planned to use regulatory differences between the EU and U.S. to slow regulatory developments at all levels, prevent the regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals, and blog efforts to replace harmful chemicals with safer alternatives. As TTIP negotiations continue, we can expect that the ACC will continue to attempt to influence the final agreement in a way that favors chemical manufacturers at the expense of public health.
The tobacco industry playbook: from BPA to silica to flame retardants
In addition to broad chemical policy debates, the ACC also works to ensure that individual chemicals and chemical groups aren’t regulated, despite scientific evidence suggesting health concerns. The report covers ACC influence on policies that sought to protect people from bisphenol A, flame retardants, formaldehyde, silica, and spray polyurethane foam.
Unfortunately, in many of these cases, the ACC was successful in delaying or defeating proposals that would have protected more people from chemical harms. They’ve continued to use the same tactics we’ve seen time and again from industries seeking to avoid regulation.
- They’ve questioned the scientific basis for new rules and scientific summary reports, like ACC’s criticizing the inclusion of formaldehyde in the Report on Carcinogens;
- They’ve paid seemingly independent scientists to conduct studies that support industry positions, like ACC’s hiring of Matthew Blais to provide misleading studies on the safety and efficacy of flame retardant chemicals;
- And they’ve launched public relations campaigns to dispel consumer concerns and downplay risks of chemicals, like in ACC’s “Listen to the Science” campaign to convince consumers of BPA’s safety.
A need for science-based chemical policies
Despite ACC’s efforts to prevent scientific evidence of chemical risks from influencing decision makers, science can still win the day. Public demand and better processes in place can help ensure that science effectively informs decision making on the chemicals we use every day. Congress is discussing one such discussion right now, as they debate TSCA reform this week. Please join me in asking Congress to pass a TSCA reform bill that prioritizes public health over chemical industry interests.