Only a tiny fraction of the compounds around us have been tested for safety.
Under current U.S. law, chemicals are, as Sanjay Gupta said, “innocent until proven guilty.”
“And the only way they are proven guilty is by health effects turning up in people who have been exposed, often years later. That makes us all guinea pigs,” Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said at the Oct. 26 field hearing of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on environmental health held in Newark, NJ.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as the law now stands, EPA can only call for safety testing of a chemical in the market place after evidence surfaces demonstrating that chemical may be dangerous. As a result, EPA has been able to require testing for just 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals currently registered in the U.S., and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances.
When the current law, the Toxic Safety Control Act of 1976 was enacted “it grandfathered in, without any evaluation, all chemicals in commerce that existed in 1976,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the subcommittee.
“Further compounding this problem, the statute never provided adequate authority for EPA to reevaluate existing chemicals as new concerns arose or science was updated, and failed to grant EPA full and complete authority to compel companies to provide toxicity data,” Jackson said.
These chemicals pervade all levels of American society. There are in building materials, food, drink, household cleansers, toys, paints, varnishes, plastics, clothing, rugs, automobiles, electronics, fragrances, appliances, soaps, and on and on. According to Calvin Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s largest association,” 96 percent of all manufactured goods are touched in some way by chemistry.”
Few of the 84,000 chemicals “have been studied for their risks to children,” Jackson said.
“Children face greater threats from environmental pollutants than adults due to differences in their physiology, activity patterns and development,” she said.
Children eat, drink and breathe more per pound than adults, so they have higher exposure to chemical pollutants in their food, drink and air, Jackson said.
“Children can have greater exposure to chemicals through behaviors that are unique to childhood, such as crawling, putting objects in their mouths, and eating nonfood items,” Jackson said.
“The risk of doing nothing to better shield our children from dangerous chemicals has become far too great,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, who chairs the subcommittee. “The government lacks the basic tools to require adequate testing. My legislation seeks to fix America’s broken system for regulating industrial chemicals. The ‘Safe Chemicals Act’ would provide parents with assurances that the products they buy for their families are safe.”
Lautenberg is trying once more to move his bill, which was introduced in April. It would reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which Lautenberg called “antiquated.”
Lautenberg said the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 would “require safety testing of all industrial chemicals and place the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe in order stay on the market.”
The legislation would also give EPA more power to regulate the use of dangerous chemicals and require manufacturers to submit information proving the safety of every chemical in production and any new chemical seeking to enter the market, Lautenberg said.
The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, which has been calling attention to the dangers of untested chemicals in the environment for over 10 years, supports the bill and a similar measure introduced in the House in July, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush, D-IL and Henry Waxman, D-CA.
The EDF, on its website, said the current law “is seriously flawed and needs fundamental reform.”
The Toxic Substances Control Act fails to identify safe and unsafe chemicals, forbids the government from sharing much of the small amount of information it does collect regarding chemicals, imposes an impossible burden on government to prove actual harm before removing a chemical from the market and “thereby perpetuates the chemical industry’s failure to innovate toward inherently safer chemical and product design,” the EDF said.
The EDF pointed out that, in 2008, the European Union dealt with the issue.
“The European Union adopted its sweeping new chemicals regulation – Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) – under which companies must register all chemicals they place on the EU market in annual amounts above one metric ton,” the EDF said.
Both Lautenberg’s and the House bill are stalled in committee. Not surprisingly, they are opposed by the big and powerful American chemicals industry, which has lobbied against the measures and donated to many mid-term campaigns on both sides of the aisle, emphasizing that onerous regulations could slow the industry and cost American jobs.
“The chemical manufacturing sector alone employs more than 800,000 American workers,” Dooley of the American Chemistry Council told a House subcommittee hearing in July.
While remarking that the chemical industry “is committed to ensuring our chemicals are safe for their intended use,” Dooley criticized the Rush/Waxman measure as “unworkable”.
“It creates additional burdens that do not contribute to and, in fact, detract from making advances in safety, while coming up short with respect to promoting innovation and protecting American jobs,” Dooley said, adding that the bill’s safety standard sets “an impossibly high hurdle for all chemicals in commerce.”