For decades now, I've called out corporations when they compromise our health and the environment. But rarely in those years have I been as worried as I am now.
Americans encounter tens of thousands of chemicals, most of which have never been tested for basic toxicity, in everyday products that are found in our homes, workplaces, supermarkets, and hardware stores.
More than 80,000 chemicals are currently manufactured or processed in the United States, including ones that are organic, inorganic, polymers, or of "unknown or variable composition," such as the byproducts of metallurgical processes or combustion. But not all of these chemicals have had to undergo health and safety evaluations required by the government agency established to protect us — the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA does not separate chemicals into categories of toxic and non-toxic. Rather it prohibits the manufacture or importation of chemicals that are not on a list of substances covered by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), or subject to one of its many exemptions. Chemicals that are listed on the TSCA Inventory are referred to as "existing chemicals," while chemicals not listed are referred to as "new chemicals."
In the 1970s, when TCSA was adopted, close to 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered into the rule and permitted for sale. Many of those chemicals, like asbestos, which still accounts for 10,000 deaths per year, have proven to be dangerous to human health, yet remain listed under TSCA. The EPA says up to a thousand new chemicals are introduced into the US market each year, but the list of substances registered under TSCA has only grown to roughly 84,000. So, in addition to the chemicals listed under TSCA, many more skirt any sort of possible scientific scrutiny of their health and environmental impacts. And, according to the EPA, the agency placed some sort of restriction on 4,400 substances since the establishment of TSCA, which highlights that scientific review is often necessary to protect the public.
According to Michael Wilson and Megan Schwarzman, researchers at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley, there are three gaps in US chemicals policy. A "data gap" has emerged from the absence of regulations requiring chemical producers to investigate and disclose information about potentially harmful effects of their substances. A lack of government legal tools for mitigating health and environmental impacts of hazardous chemicals has created a "safety gap." And a "technology gap" has been created because chemical companies have little incentive to develop and promote green alternatives.
This past March, Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter stepped in and introduced legislation that would update TSCA. Their reforms, however, won't make chemicals safer by bridging these gaps; rather the Udall-Vitter bill continues to protect chemical makers. It provides an inadequate safety standard, creates needless roadblocks to state-level health and environment protections, fails to provide the EPA with sufficient resources to do its job, doesn't fast-track asbestos for review, and lacks a hard deadline for carrying out rules that protect us from the most potentially dangerous chemicals.
If the Udall-Vitter bill passes, the chemical industry will be the clear winner — again.
I am particularly concerned about the way their legislation, which has been approved by the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, thwarts state efforts to protect their citizens from toxic chemicals. Right now, states can impose environmental and public health restrictions on chemicals. Under the proposal, though, states would be pre-empted from regulating a dangerous substance. This is a backward, bait-and-switch approach since it is the states — 33, in fact — that have been leading the way to enact protections against harmful substances such as bisphenol A, formaldehyde, lead, mercury, and toxic flame retardants. It would be insane to unduly restrict states when they have historically been the most vigorous cops on the beat.
It is also unfair to expect people to depend entirely on the EPA for chemical safety when it is understaffed and underfunded due to decades of budgetary neglect. The agency says there are about 1,000 chemicals that need to be investigated right away for safety. But this chemical industry bill doesn't remedy the agency's funding woes; with the EPA's current resources, it could take a century or more for it to realistically assess these chemicals. That's why it is more important than ever to preserve a role for the states.
The proposed bill is a bargain for the chemical industry, which brings in an estimated $40 billion a year in profit. Yet, it is asked to contribute a paltry $18 million to cover EPA's costs of evaluating potentially dangerous chemicals, even though it costs as much as $3 million to review a single chemical for safety.
Since the bill's introduction, hundreds of leading public interest groups and medical professionals have rejected it for many of the same reasons I've laid out. In my years of advocacy, if you see this level of concern from health and environmental professions, its best to heed their warnings.
The gaping holes in the Udall-Vitter bill are malicious in design and will protect profits, not people. It seems to me a pretty sweet deal for chemical companies, but a toxic mess for our families, our health, and our environment.
Erin Brockovich is a long-time consumer advocate. Follow her on Twitter: @ErinBrockovich
Watch the VICE News documentary Toxic Waste in the US: Coal Ash.