Rethinking Chemicals

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In what has become a yearly tradition, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has again introduced legislation that would update the sorely outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. It’s called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 and it would close many of the safety holes left by the current chemical law.

When TSCA was passed, it grandfathered in some 62,000 chemicals, allowing them to persist in broad manufacture and use despite a lack of human safety and health data. The Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) write that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “has reviewed the human health risks of only an estimated 2% of the 62,000 chemicals that were in use in 1976.” In other words, we do not know how most of the chemicals we are exposed to in large quantities will impact developing fetuses, pregnant women, children and others. And before the EPA can require additional testing of any suspected dangerous chemicals, it must first prove that the chemical poses a dangerous risk to human health or the environment. Without safety data, it’s nearly impossible for the agency to make such a case.

Still, thanks to advocacy groups like Environmental Working Group, PSR and Environmental Defense Fund as well as government- and privately funded research and studies, we’ve learned a lot since the ‘70s about the dangers these chemicals pose. Take the chemical Bisphenol-A, or BPA, found in everything from the epoxy resin lining of canned food to credit card receipts. The Food and Drug Administration decided in January 2010 that BPA posed potential risk to human health—particularly the brain development of fetuses, infants and children—but because the chemical is exempt under TSCA, it still can’t regulate BPA. Other chemicals now known or suspected to cause damage to human health that are still allowed in excess quantities in many consumer products under TSCA include flame retardants, pesticides, formaldehyde and phthalates.

The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 would change all that, ushering in a precautionary approach to chemicals. It would require manufacturers to submit safety data for all chemicals—including those previously allowed a free pass. It would prioritize those chemicals considered to pose the most risk; enable the EPA to act quickly to prevent the release of hazardous chemicals; make the safety data and chemical information publicly available and support the rise of “green chemistry,” or the development of safer chemical alternatives.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Al Franken (D-MN).

“The average American has more than 200 industrial chemicals in their body, including dozens linked to cancer and other health problems,” Lautenberg said in a related release. “The EPA does not have the tools to address dangerous substances and even the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws to assure consumers that their products are safe.”