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January 29, 2008

"10 Americans": The Politics of Toxic Substances (Part 2)

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After reading the facts presented in yesterday's post on the EWG presentation "10 Americans", you're probably wondering why our laws and protection agencies aren't protecting us.

The problem rests with a notoriously weak chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976.

In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act essentially deemed 63,000 existing chemicals "safe as used". No scrutiny, no required testing, simply a mandated approval. And, the law forces the government to approve new chemicals within 90 days of a company's application at an average pace of seven per day. It does not mandate safety studies. This completely lame law has not been improved or updated for nearly 30 years — longer than any other major environmental or public health statute.

Under TSCA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot require safety data as a condition of continued chemical use. Instead, the EPA must negotiate with a company or complete a formal "test rule" for every study that it needs, for every chemical on the market. Consequently, very few high-quality toxicity tests are conducted.

If a company does voluntary testing of a chemical and submits the results to the agency, huge portions, including key health and safety findings, are routinely redacted as confidential business information, meaning that even state regulatory agencies are not allowed to review them. If the EPA does identify risks associated with the use of a particular chemical, TSCA mandates that economic costs to industry be weighed and efforts utilized to minimize any "unreasonable" costs to industry. Additionally, TSCA requires certainty of harm before actions can be taken to protect health.

Unbelievable. No precautionary principle whatsoever. Our law protects industry, not human beings.

The EWG is one of my favorite non-profits. They are currently leading a campaign to reform federal laws and policies to ensure that we are protected from chemicals. This is a tough job: There is very little data on chemical toxicity and exposure; there is a lack of ambition at the EPA; and we have a chemical industry that is reaping huge benefits from lax regulation and doesn't want to change.

But the folks at the EWG believe they (we) can make change happen.

In the presentation, they pointed out previous wins through mandates and regulation. Air pollution was reduced from 2 billion pounds in 1988 to .57 billion pounds in 2004. Water pollution was reduced from 42 million pounds in 1988 to 22 million pounds in 2004. Teflon, a multi billion dollar industry for Dupont, was banned and is being phased out by 2015. EWG has put together an unprecedented coalition of leading scientists and scientific organizations, top authorities in medicine and health, environmental groups, and, get this, a broad spectrum of religious leaders.

Their vision of a new law (the Kid Safe Chemical Act) includes:

  • Requiring chemical manufacturers to demonstrate that the chemicals they sell are safe for the entire population exposed, including children in the womb.
  • Mandating precaution and action in the face of uncertainty.
  • Assuming that chemicals are harming people until proven otherwise.
  • Prioritized safety reviews, bans, and phase-outs based on what's in people and what's hazardous.

These people at the EWG, god bless them, have huge cajones. If this story doesn't compel you donate to EWG, I don't know what would. If you can't donate, inform as many people as you can about the situation. Future generations, and maybe ours, will depend on it.

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