Environmental Stewardship: Toxic Substance Control

by John Berge

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Toxic Substance Control Act passed by Congress back in 1976. Should we be celebrating this Act that was meant to protect us from harmful chemicals in our environment and products we use every day or should we be ruing the fact that it has failed miserably?

Icon3Proj3EasCreaABCThe ultimate example of the latter was that the federal government was not even able to meet the law’s requirements to prove that asbestos was harmful and should be controlled. They couldn’t meet the requirements for lead or formaldehyde, either. The requirements for proof were just too strict and the EPA did not have the money or power to regulate. Companies did not have to clear even a basic safety review before using a chemical in consumer products and the EPA had little power to remove hazardous materials already in the marketplace.

I am a trained PhD chemist, and so I am not one to consider anything called a “chemical” as necessarily harmful. Water and oxygen are both chemicals and we would be pretty bad off without them. Our bodies are mostly water and oxygen with a bunch of other chemicals such as fats, proteins and enzymes thrown in to the mix. But intellectual man (and woman) has been able to synthesize other chemicals that are not supposed to be part of us, or at least not in the quantities that might result from their presence in our environment. Some of these are harmful to us or the environment and therefore should be regulated.

Finally, last June, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act which gives the EPA the tools necessary to better ensure the safety of chemicals and significantly strengthen health protections for all of us. Richard Denison, an Environmental Defense Fund scientist has said that this bill is a “solid bipartisan compromise that fixes the biggest problems with our current law”. Denison has worked to reform TSCA for decades.

EDF listed three important things in the new bill:
  • it requires EPA to review the safety of all new and existing chemicals with clear priority-setting and concrete deadlines for decisions and regulatory action,
  • it gives EPA new power to require testing and limits companies’ ability to hide information about chemicals as “trade secrets”, and
  • it explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women.
Obviously, testing and rule making will take time, but some companies are already making changes to their products to remove chemicals that may be proven hazardous. As good environmental stewards, we should endorse their actions by buying their products and sending them thank you notes. We also should be sending notes to Congress and administration leaders to make sure the EPA is adequately funded to do their job as expediently as possible.
The chemical industry’s fees will only cover part of the costs. Many chemicals are useful and safe; we need to prove which ones are and which are not.

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