Reforms are long overdue as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has not been updated in almost 40 years. This is about to change as the US congress is poised to pass new chemical legislation in the coming days. Currently the Environmental Protection Agency requires toxicity testing for only 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals permitted for use. Omitted from the list are a number of known carcinogens. There are more than 12,000 chemical facilities in the US producing more than 8,000 chemicals.
“People believe when they go to the grocery store and go to the hardware store and they get a product, that product’s been tested and that product’s safe,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), one of the key authors of the legislation, said at a news conference in front of the Capitol. “Well, that isn’t the case.”
There have also been a number of workplace accidents. In the last 10 years more than 1,500 accidents were reported by the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) facilities. These accidents caused 59 deaths and 17,000 injuries and almost 500,000 people being evacuated or sheltered-in-place.
Since 1976 a total of 23,000 new chemicals have been manufactured none of which are covered by existing legislation. In 2014 the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said that Chemical exposure standards are “dangerously out of date.”
At the end of 2013 the EPA announced it was releasing screening data on 1,800 chemicals found in industrial and consumer products. As explained by the EPA upon the release of this data
“Only a fraction of chemicals in use in the United States have been adequately assessed for potential risk.”
Private sector leadership
The issue of chemical safety reform has been around for a while and some leading brands have been cleaning house while pushing for chemical reform. In 2013, companies came together to advocate for chemicals reform. Seventh Generation led a chemical reform coalition that is composed of a number of companies including Patagonia, one of the most environmentally responsible companies in the world. These and other companies have already made great strides in eliminating toxics from their operations.
In 2008, ChemSec developed the Substitute It Now also known as the SIN List to highlight chemicals that were likely to be subject to future EU regulation. In 2013 the list grew by 66 percent with the addition of 249 chemicals. In October 2014, ChemSec launched SINimilarity, a tool for identifying SIN-like chemicals to assist companies in avoiding non-sustainable substitutions.
Other corporate efforts to address the issue of toxins ahead of forthcoming regulations include an initiative called the Chemical Footprint Project (CFP) founded by the environmental nonprofit Clean Production Action, the research institute The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the sustainability consultancy Pure Strategies.
Companies involved in the launch of the initiative in 2014 included Target, Staples, Kaiser Permanente and the US Green Building Council. This initiative offers a metric for publicly benchmarking corporate chemicals management and profiling corporate leadership.
As explained in an Environmental Leader article, “the CFP will enable purchasers to preferentially select suppliers and investors to integrate chemical risk into their sustainability analyses and investments. The CFP results enable brands to market their progress and success in using safer chemicals.”
Reigning in toxins is crucial as we are coming to a better scientific understanding of the prevalence and the effects of such toxins on human health, particularly children. Children have been shown to be most vulnerable to neurotoxins while in the womb and during the first years of life.
Many of these impacts are chronicled in a documentary film called “Unacceptable Levels“. This film reviews the wide range of synthetic chemicals in our bodies and how they got there.
Some Unacceptable Facts from the film:
- Approximately 200 synthetic industrial chemicals interact with our cells every single day.
- Autism now affects one in 50 children.
- Cancer is the leading cause of death (after accidents) in children younger than 15 years in the United States.
In the last twenty years, the rates of asthma, allergies and ADHD are on the rise:
- 400% increase in allergies
- 300% increase in asthma
- 400% increase in ADHD
- $2.6 Trillion of the GDP is spent on treating disease every year.
Even tiny amounts of toxins have been shown to be harmful leading to the conclusion that there are no safe levels. A number of health agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have declared that there is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood. In addition to lead, chemical flame retardants and organophosphate pesticides and other toxins, have been found in the blood of nearly every American.
The dangers of such toxins have been documented in a video called “Little Things Matter.” This video points to the growing scientific evidence that exposures to minuscule quantities of common contaminants can undermine normal brain development, lower IQs and increase levels of behavioral conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Exposure to toxins can lead to reductions in IQ and half the number of children considered “intellectually gifted.” There is also a 50 percent increase in “intellectually impaired” children.
As explained in the video below:
“We’ve been studying the impact of toxins on children for the past 30 years and reached the inescapable conclusion: little things matter.”
“The evidence is really mounting that industrial chemicals have some contribution to neurodevelopment problems,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. “And we’re seeing more kids with these problems.”
This is not only a tragic and preventable waste of children’s potential it also results in billions of dollars of lost productivity. There are also other direct costs associated with chemicals in the US. According to the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) chemical accidents cost more than $2 billion in property damages in the last decade.
There are significant savings associated with investing in children’s health. As documented by the Huffington Post, a 2009 study showed that “for every $1 spent to protect kids from lead, society saves $17 to $220, thanks to reduced costs of health care, special education, crime and lost lifetime earnings for those with IQ losses or disorders such as autism and ADHD.”
States are already acting ahead of the forthcoming federal legislation. Over the last decade more than 200 state policies have been enacted to protect people from hazardous chemicals in consumer products. At least 33 states have or are considering policies focused on toxic chemicals.
In March 2016 the EPA proposed changes to its chemical safety rules (RMP). These changes will require companies to assess whether safer technologies and chemicals are feasible in three industries (paper manufacturing, petroleum and coal products, and chemical manufacturing). The proposal has been criticized for not going far enough as almost 90 percent of over 12,000 chemical facilities in the US are exempt from the requirements in the proposed rules.
By June 1, 2016, US companies must update their workplace chemical labels to comply with the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System (GHS). OSHA’s US deadline applies to 43 million workers who produce or handle hazardous chemicals in more than 5 million workplaces across the country. See a white paper by 3E designed to help companies with compliance.
As we approach the end of May 2016, the most important chemicals legislation in almost four decades is about to be passed in the US. At the end of 2015, the Senate unanimously passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. On May 19th 2016 the US Senate unanimously approved the chemical safety bill. It will now go to conference committee to be reconciled with the US House of Representatives’ chemical safety reform bill, which passed in June 2015.
If as expected the bill passes, it will provide greater certainty to industry and give the EPA the power and funding to demand more information about a chemical before approving its use. This will have a profound impact on a wide range of consumer products.
As quoted in the Washington Post, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who worked on the bill, said “it could be one of the most historic moments in environmental law in our country.”
The new legislation will reverse the burden of proof. Rather than putting the EPA in a position of having to prove that chemicals are not safe, companies can be ordered to provide health and safety data for untested chemicals. Industry will also have to pay user fees that will expand testing. Priorities in the proposed legislation will focus on the review of chemicals stored near drinking water as well as those that are known human carcinogens and highly toxic with chronic exposure.
The response from industry has been positive. As reported by Environmental Leader, “the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), which represents hundreds of household brands including 3M, Procter & Gamble, BASF and Unilever, said the Senate’s passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21stCentury Act brings the US closer to having an effective, science-based chemical regulatory system that gives consumers confidence in the safety of the products they buy.”
The American Chemistry Council said the bill will “build confidence in the US chemical regulatory system and address the commercial and competitive needs of the US chemical industry and the national economy.”
And the National Association of Manufacturers said the bill will eliminate regulatory uncertainty. “Manufacturers have long been vocal advocates for these essential reforms that strengthen and modernize outdated environmental regulations,” said NAM vice president of energy and resources policy Ross Eisenberg. “This real reform will enable manufacturers to further improve products while growing the economy and creating jobs. Manufacturers urge congressional negotiators to resolve this legislation quickly.”
A vote in both the House and the Senate could come as soon as next week.