Fools ‘R’ Us: How the Chemical Lobby Keeps Us from Testing Its Products for Safety

Friday, October 15, 2010

by Sheila Kaplan, POLITICS DAILY, October 15, 2010

image Fire retardants in baby blankets, nano-particles in cosmetics, plastics in water bottles and anti-bacterial agents in soaps.

Experts call these and other chemicals emerging contaminants — compounds that were once thought to be safe, but which scientists now believe may pose a danger to human health.

How those chemicals get into your house — and your bloodstream — is no surprise: Loopholes in the federal law that regulates toxic chemicals have allowed manufacturers to sell them without first proving they are safe.
In recent years, however, dozens of studies — many funded by the federal government — have shown that chemicals that are ubiquitous in the environment and in consumer goods can cause cancer, wreak havoc on hormones, damage the developing brain, depress the immune system and alter gene expression-among other problems. Earlier this year, the President’s Cancer Panel reported “The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” And Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funded many of the top studies, told Congress, “Research has revealed the heightened vulnerability of fetal, infant and child development processes to disruption from relatively low doses of certain chemicals.” Birnbaum, like EPA chief Lisa Jackson, urged Congress to revamp the federal law that regulates toxic chemicals, giving the agency greater authority to protect the public.
Last fall, a group of congressional Democrats vowed to overhaul the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to make it easier for EPA to take dangerous chemicals off the market and ensure that the substitutes are safe. But one year, six congressional hearings and 10 “stakeholder sessions” later, the bills are dead, a testament to the combined clout of $674 billion chemical industry, the companies that process their compounds into air fresheners, detergents, perfumes, cosmetics, toys, medical devices and other consumer goods, and the stores that sell them. Their campaign to block reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act won out over EPA’s support, an unprecedented campaign by public health advocates fueled by the industry’s own admissions that the current law does not fully protect public health.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who introduced reform bills, say they’ll reintroduce them next year. But industry lobbyists will also be back, making it likely that the stalemate will continue — even if the Republicans don’t gain any additional seats in Congress.

Change Seemed Possible

One year ago, advocates said, the outlook for reform of the toxic substances act was good. According to interviews with congressional staff, Lautenberg, Rush and Waxman were optimistic about winning support. Jackson, the EPA’s new administrator, announced early on that strengthening chemical regulation was a top priority. The industry itself, wary of the patchwork of regulations springing up in statehouses around the country, which targeted one chemical or another, said that a uniform federal law might be easier to deal with than 50 separate laws. Some of the chemical companies were already dealing with new safety regulations adopted in Europe.
In April, Lautenberg introduced the Kid Safe Chemical Act, and in July, Rush and Waxman followed with the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010. The heart of both bills was a shift in accountability to make chemical companies responsible for proving their products safe before putting them on the market.
“We’re saying those who make the chemicals . . . ought to be responsible for testing them first before they’re released to the public, instead of having the EPA play detective to search and try to find problems,” said Lautenberg. The bills would have required businesses to reveal which chemicals they are using, and show that there is a “reasonable certainty that no harm will result” from all intended uses over the life cycle of a chemical. It would also require EPA to consider aggregate exposure to chemicals from many sources when making a safety determination, and to take into account vulnerable populations, such as children or those with immune disorders.

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