Reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our federal system for overseeing chemical safety, is now on the national agenda. This is welcome news because TSCA has failed to protect public health and the environment from toxic chemicals, in the process threatening the competitiveness of American industry in a global market that increasingly demands safer products. This factsheet defines the key differences between what public health advocates want and what the chemical industry wants from TSCA reform.
When TSCA was adopted in 1976, it "grandfathered" in the 62,000 chemicals then on the market. In the intervening 34 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required testing of just over 200 of those chemicals and it has regulated only five. This record of inaction—in the face of massive growth in chemical production and use, as well as new science linking chemicals to chronic disease—created the current widespread loss of confidence in EPA's chemical program.
Meanwhile, a number of states and other countries have moved ahead, enacting new policies to identify and control problem chemicals. At the same time, major manufacturers and retailers have crafted their own policies in response to rising consumer demand. The combination of a loss of consumer confidence and proliferation of standards prompted the American Chemistry Council—the primary trade group for chemical manufacturers—to shift from its longstanding position flatly opposing TSCA reform to supporting something better than current law but too weak to truly protect public health.
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families believes that effective and comprehensive reform of TSCA will not only protect public health; it will also help American companies by spurring innovation and job creation dedicated to making the next generation of safer chemicals and products. Real TSCA reform will allow the public to reap the benefits that advancements in chemistry have fostered in our daily lives without further harming our health or the environment.
Below are some of the fundamental differences between Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families' vision of reform and that of the chemical industry:
Public health advocates believe all chemicals should have basic health and safety information as a condition for entering or remaining on the market—something other laws already require for drugs and pesticides. This requirement will both identify and keep harmful chemicals out of commerce and identify safer chemicals that can replace the dangerous ones. Publicly available information on the hazards and uses of chemicals and their sources of exposure will not only provide a basis for better EPA and state-level decision-making; it will inform the myriad choices made every day by American companies as to which chemicals and products they buy, make, use and sell.
The chemical industry wants to use the very limited information currently available for most chemicals to identify a few as priorities. Only these priority chemicals would be subjected to further information requirements—and then only on a case-by-case basis. By not requiring at least basic information up front for all chemicals, the industry's proposal would fail to identify all problem chemicals on the market. Such chemicals will not be prioritized, not because they are safe, but because EPA lacks the information needed to identify them as priorities. Meanwhile, the public would still be in the dark about most chemicals, and product manufacturers and retailers would continue to struggle to meet consumer demand without the safety information they need. Only a system that compels information on all chemicals in commerce will be sufficient to identify both problem chemicals and those that pose little or no concern.
Public health advocates want to ensure that EPA acts quickly to reduce the impacts of those chemicals we already know are dangerous. Government authorities across the globe have already concluded that use of certain persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals must be reduced or eliminated. The risks of other chemicals, like formaldehyde and asbestos, have already been established. For this relatively small group of chemicals—for which there is already evidence of both high hazard and widespread exposure—EPA should focus its resources on reducing use of and exposure to them to the maximum extent possible.
The chemical industry opposes allowing EPA to take action on any chemical without first subjecting it to a new, full-blown risk assessment. While using such a process— which has proven contentious, lengthy and costly—may be warranted for chemicals not previously assessed, it is wholly unjustified for chemicals we already know are dangerous to which people are being exposed. The industry's approach would allow such chemicals to continue to be used in consumer products, and do nothing to protect the public, for years to come.
Currently chemicals are too often assessed without taking into account that, in the real world, people are exposed to multiple chemicals from multiple sources, including air, water, food, and consumer products. Public health advocates believe that, when assessing safety, EPA must take into account the sum of all exposures to a chemical and to other chemicals that cause the same or similar health impacts. This common-sense approach to assessing chemicals mirrors the 2008 recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences.
In contrast, the chemical industry would have EPA take into account only a subset of uses of the small number of priority chemicals, identified by relying on the very limited information about chemical uses available today. EPA would then be asked to determine the safety of those individual uses, one at a time. This approach not only fails to consider the full extent of chemical exposures; it won’t tell us how most chemicals are used or how we are exposed to them.
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition representing 11 million health professionals, concerned parents, consumers, public health and environmental advocates, shares the goal of creating a credible federal program that would benefit American industry. However, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families believes that goal can only be achieved with reform that puts health and the environment first, better informs the public and the marketplace, and uses the best science.