Some of you know me for my work (by day) on toxic chemicals. I work for the nation’s largest environmental health coalition called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. We’re working to protect American families from toxic chemicals.
When most people think of toxic chemicals, an image similar to the one above comes to mind. Drums of chemical waste, illegal dumping in the 1970s, industrial parks, and scientists in a lab wearing HazMat suits.
What many people still don’t know is that toxic chemicals aren’t just found in chemical drums. Toxic chemicals are found in consumer products you and I use every single day: household cleaners, carpet, couches, electronics, shampoo, children’s car seats, toys, cookware, the list unfortunately goes on.
The most alarming part of this is that these chemicals migrate out of the products we use and into our bodies. Nearly every person tested by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a variety of toxic chemicals in their body. Almost all pregnant women tested positive for a myriad toxic substances, and children are at an increased risk for chemical exposure due to their unique behaviors.
The root of the problem all comes back to an antiquated law called the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
In the 1970s Congress was passing a lot of environmental legislation. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, founding the Superfund program for cleaning up hazardous waste sites and TSCA. This law is widely regarded as the biggest failure of our environmental laws and is the only statue never to have been updated or amended.
This is saying something considering other laws are regularly updated, tweaked and improved (hopefully) along the way. Our coalition at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has been working to educate the public about this urgent and important issue. Many American families assume that the products they have in their homes are safe and tested.
Under this broken law that isn’t the case.
Some of TSCA’s notorious failures:
- The EPA can’t regulate toxic chemicals under this law. They tried to regulate asbestos, one of the most deadly substances we know, and couldn’t. The question quickly became, if you can’t regulate asbestos under this law, what can you do?
- There is little to no health and safety information required about chemicals used in many of our homes, in our drinking water and polluting communities. This means that we know very little about the health effects of some chemicals (as we discovered in the West Virginia chemical spill which recently left 300,000 without drinking water). Of the chemicals that have been tested by independent researchers, the health and environmental impacts are alarming.
- We don’t know how or where chemicals are being used. Since most of safety information and uses of chemicals is kept secret under TSCA, chemical companies get carte blanche with how they use chemicals. This means that we know little about how we’re being exposed to hundreds of chemicals throughout our day.
- The names of nearly 17,000 chemicals is kept secret. Not only are the health effects kept secret about chemicals, the names of several thousand (some say nearly 17,000 chemicals) are kept secret under the law.
- The EPA can only request health and safety information about a chemical if they suspect harm. This is what most people refer to as TSCA’s “Catch 22,” how can the EPA know that something’s harmful without having data on a chemical up front? Instead there must be widespread exposure to a chemical, with widely documented evidence before the EPA can require basic health and safety from chemical companies.
- The way a chemical is deemed “safe” is linked to economic interests. Often referred to as cost-benefit analysis, this concept is required in the determination of whether or not a chemical is safe. In other words, under the law the EPA doesn’t get to decide if a chemical is hazardous (and at what level) based on the scientific research alone. They must factor into the equation whether or not there are economically viable alternatives to using the chemical when determining if it’s safe. If that makes no sense to you, join the club.
The list of TSCA’s failures goes on and on. And many of our problems with chemicals today are rooted in TSCA’s shortcomings:
- The widespread exposure to toxic flame retardants in our homes, and the regular moving from one dangerous chemical to another
- Lack of access to information on ingredients and chemicals use in household cleaners, laundry detergents etc
- Chemical spills where we know very little about the health effects of chemicals spilling into our water and
- The lack of information available on fracking chemicals.
All of these roads lead back to the need to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.
I will write from time to time about things we can do as individuals to protect ourselves from toxic chemicals, like tackling toxic dust in our homes or avoiding fragrance. But while we do these small steps at home, we must all get involved at a bigger level.
The forces of special interests in your state capitols and in Congress are immense. In fact, today there was a hearing in the U.S. House on a phony bill in Washington that would do more to protect the chemical industry than your family’s health. The good news is that with a loud and consistent grassroots army we can change the status quo.
I get it if you’re disgusted by Congress, if you hate politics. But nothing is more important than our health — we need to channel our frustration towards meaningful, systemic change. Since we’ve started doing this, we ARE making a difference.