The Need for Toxic Chemical Reform

Many of our common household products contain chemicals we know very little about. We may not know these chemicals by name, how they’re made or their purpose, but we buy the products that are made from them anyway. Unfortunately, the safety of many chemicals used in consumer goods has not been substantiated and that poses a major problem. Every entity involved in bringing products to the market including distributors, manufacturers and government regulators, is responsible for providing goods that meet certain standards of safety…so how can this be?

What I would like to do is shed some light on the enormity of the chemical industry and highlight one of the major pushes to reform its oversight. There are 55 million chemicals currently registered in the American Chemical Society’s database, called the CAS Registry. That number is up from the 28 million that were recorded in 2006 report. This includes various combinations of organic and inorganic compounds, metals, alloys, minerals and polymers to name a few. Estimates made by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that less than 240,000 chemicals are regulated under governmental agencies globally. What we see here is the hyper accelerated discovery, development and distribution of new chemical compounds to meet the demands of consumers. Agencies responsible for regulating this industry are placed in a continuously reactive – as oppose to a proactive – position in weeding out chemicals that pose a threat to human health and the environment.

The EPA was granted oversight and the power to regulate chemical substances in consumer goods under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. When the Act was passed there were 62,000 chemicals in production, today over 80,000 chemicals being used in consumer goods, according to the Environmental Working Group, a research organization based in Washington DC. For the most part little is known about the health risks associated with the majority of these chemicals and the EPA has played somewhat of a limited role in regulating the industry. Over the past year the EPA has posted action plans for managing a range of chemicals determined to be hazardous. The number of chemicals on that list is a far cry from truly managing the vast number of chemicals currently in the market, but some is better than none. The chemicals include the following, Benzidine Dyes, Bisphenol A (BPA), Hexambromocyclododecane (HBCD), Nonylphenol and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates, and Long-chain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). These are not common household names but are part of products that we use every day.

The TSCA is embedded with loopholes that have been exploited by chemical industries since its passage. This has prompted a response from policy makers and advocates to introduce legislation from both the Senate (Safe Chemicals Act of 2010) and the House of Representatives (Toxic Chemical Safety Act of 2010). These bills include but are not limited to a combination of the following: extensive review process and testing of chemicals, improving transparency of chemical production, higher safety standards, identifying high priority chemicals, promoting safer chemical alternatives and the elimination of harmful chemicals on the market. Both bills have failed to garner enough support to make it to the floor for a vote and are currently being held in their respective committees.

This is stalling reform to an industry whose products are ubiquitous in our lives and impact us in ways in which we may not know about for many years to come.  News in this area is not all grim, at least not in California. California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is currently working on State legislation under the Green Chemistry Initiative to regulate and provide greater oversight of chemicals used in consumer goods.

I believe that oversight and transparency of the chemical industry is in the best interest of both the consumer and environment. This will allow regulators to take a proactive position in limiting the production of harmful chemicals, promoting safer alternatives and educating consumers. Our current system does not allow that and it needs to change sooner rather than later.



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