January 23, 2011
The Environmental Protection Agency has passed a rule that would require rigorous new testing for 19 high production volume chemicals in order to determine the effects to human and environmental health.
To be considered a high production volume (HPV) chemical, a million or more pounds of must be either produced or imported.
The chemicals that have been singled out for testing are used in everything from personal care products and consumer goods to fingerprinting dyes and blasting agents…
“This chemical data reporting will provide EPA with critical information to better evaluate any potential risks from these chemicals that are being produced in large quantities in this country,” Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, noted in a press release.
“Having this information is essential to improve chemical safety and protect the health of the American people and the environment.”
While investigating the health impacts of these 19 chemicals is indeed a worthy pursuit, the scarier fact is there are about 3,300 HPV chemicals currently in use in the United States.
And as Dr. Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), points out, the process to enact this new rule took several years — and only covers 19 of those thousands of chemicals.
Denison argues that is a symptom of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The act, passed in 1976, gave the EPA the authority to regulate dangerous chemicals.
The EDF set up a website, I AM NOT A GUINEA PIG, which identifies three main reasons why the TSCA has been ineffective:
The “grandfather” problemUnfortunately, TSCA “grandfathered in” some 62,000 chemicals in use at the time it was enacted — that is, chemical companies could keep selling them without safety testing. Today, most chemicals on the market are among those original 62,000, and have never been tested.
The “unreasonable risk” problem
TSCA contained another fatal flaw. To regulate a chemical, the law places the burden of proving a chemical is causing harm on EPA, rather than requiring chemical producers to prove their chemicals are safe.
In addition, the law requires that EPA prove a chemical presents an “unreasonable risk.”
In practice, this standard has been impossible for EPA to meet. The only chemicals banned under TSCA are PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which were widely used in transformers and electrical equipment. That happened only because the ban was written by Congress into the original law.
The secrecy problem
Under TSCA, chemical companies can label as trade secrets virtually any of the information they submit to EPA about their products. And EPA, the law states, may not share information claimed as secret with the public, with state or local governments, or with the governments of other countries.
The chemical industry has exploited this loophole to claim that information about 95% of their new chemicals should be secret. They even make the same claim about many chemicals for which they are required to submit health and safety data.
EPA can challenge these claims; but TSCA says they must be contested on a case-by-case basis, and the agency simply hasn’t the resources to examine more than a tiny percentage of the thousands of claims made each year.
The result? The identities of almost 20% of the tens of thousands of chemicals in commercial use in the United States — from flame retardants to laundry detergent additives — are kept secret from consumers, scientists, and government regulators.
And even health and safety information — which under TSCA is supposed to be ineligible for trade secret protection — is routinely claimed by companies to be confidential, rendering the information inaccessible to the public.
These impediments are why Denison and other experts take the new EPA rule with a grain of salt.
“While the efforts are not futile, they invoke that feeling of running faster and faster while falling farther and farther behind,” Denison said on his blog.
Unfortunately, consumers cannot run away from the thousands of chemicals that surround them…
The I AM NOT A GUINEA PIG campaign seeks to address this problem. You can learn more about it at the website, or from the video below:
- The EPA Pushes a Safe Alternative to Removing Bed Bugs
- Lousiana Opens Fishing Waters Despite Health Concerns
- Internal Documents Detail Radiation in Water Supply
- Toxic Chemicals Leaking from Light Fixtures in NYC Schools
- Is Credit Karma Safe?