Americans assume that chemicals used to make products like toys and food containers sold in the U.S. are regulated and tested for safety — but they are not. From nursing pillows made with carcinogenic tris, to children’s jewelry containing cadmium, dangerous chemicals are in our homes, places of work, and the products we use every day. With each new scientific report linking toxic chemical exposure to a serious health problem, it becomes more obvious that the law intended to keep harmful chemicals in check — the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 — is not working.
When passed into law, TSCA approved more than 60,000 chemicals that were already in existence prior to 1976; only 200 of the original 60,000 chemicals have been tested for safety; only 5 of these toxic substances have been restricted. Today there are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market, which have never been fully assessed for toxic impacts on human health and the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to use TSCA to restrict asbestos 20 years ago and failed. It hasn’t tried since.
TSCA allows chemical manufacturers to keep the ingredients in some chemicals secret — nearly 20 percent of the 80,000 chemicals are secret, according to EPA. TSCA makes it hard for product makers to find the information they need to identify which chemicals are safe and unsafe. Instead of requiring chemical makers to demonstrate that their chemicals are safe before they go into use, the law says the government has to prove actual harm in order to control or replace a dangerous chemical.
Now, we have the chance to fix this problem — and to protect future generations from serious harm. By updating TSCA, Congress can create the foundation for a sound and comprehensive chemicals policy that protects public health and the environment, while restoring the “Made in the U.S.A.” brand in the world market. To be effective, any TSCA reform should:
- Take immediate action on the most dangerous chemicals
Current laws aren't protecting us from chemicals that are building up in our bodies and threatening our health. These persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals should be phased out of commerce. Our exposure to other toxic chemicals that we know can cause serious health problems, should be reduced. Green chemistry research should be expanded, and safer chemicals favored over those with known health hazards.
- Hold industry responsible for the safety of their chemicals and products
Due to serious limitations of the current law, very little is known about the vast majority of the tens of thousands of chemicals produced and used in the US. Over the past three decades, the EPA has required testing on just 200 existing chemicals and restricted only five. Companies that make and use chemicals should be required to provide full information on the impact of all their chemicals on health and the environment. The public, workers, and businesses should have access to information about the safety of chemicals.
- Use the best science to protect all people and vulnerable groups
Chemicals should meet a standard of safety for all people, including children, pregnant women, and workers. The extra burden of toxic chemical exposure on people of color, low-income, and indigenous communities must be reduced and more studies must be done to detect which chemicals are present in our bodies. The EPA should adopt the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences on how to better assess risks from chemicals. And regulators should expand the development and use of information gleaned from “biomonitoring,” the science of detecting human chemical contamination, to inform and impel efforts to reduce such exposures.
The opportunity to fix our broken federal chemical safety system continues to ripen. Virtually all parties now agree that the nation’s chemical safety law must be modernized. Several factors are driving Congress to finish its work to overhaul the 35-year old Toxic Substances Control Act.
- In April, 2011, Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the "Safe Chemicals Act of 2011" (S. 847) with four co-sponsors: Senators Barbara Boxer, Amy Klobuchar, Charles Schumer, and Al Franken. For the first time, Lautenberg seeks to require that chemical manufacturers demonstrate the safety of industrial chemicals used in everyday household products. (Watch Sen. Lautenberg introduce the "Safe Chemicals Act of 2011.")
- EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has stated on several occasions that updating TSCA is a priority for the Obama Administration, and unveiled new principles for reform that closely mirror the recommendations of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition.
- The last Congress held eight public hearings that created unprecedented traction in favor of federal chemical policy reform. The failure of TSCA (PDF) was fully exposed. Congress examined the need to protect the health of the most vulnerable (PDF), for expedited action on the worst chemicals(PDF) and for information on all chemicals (PDF) in commerce to inform business and safety decisions.
- Growing market demand for safer chemicals and an increasing number of state laws to restrict toxic chemicals continue to drive the need for federal TSCA reform.
- The chemical industry now acknowledges the need for federal reform of chemical policy to restore public confidence in the safety of their products and to create a more predictable business environment.