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Saving Us From Everyday Exposure To Toxic Chemicals

Smoking might be banned in most places, but there are still toxic chemicals everywhere—and no requirements that the companies who make them warn you about them. A new law is aiming to change all that.

A law that could ameliorate our everyday exposure to toxins is currently being debated in the Senate. It might just get passed—if the industrial chemical industry doesn’t get in the way.

Look around. Toxic industrial chemicals are everywhere: mattresses, electronics, holiday lights, laundry detergent, and even in the insulation of the building you’re sitting in right now. This is a big issue. According to testing from the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, most Americans have over 212 industrial chemicals lurking in their bodies, including six known carcinogens and other chemicals linked to birth defects and cancer.

The biggest problem lies in the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), an outdated law aimed at regulating chemical use. The act grandfathered in 60,000 chemicals that were used before the act was passed, and only 200 of those chemicals have been tested for safety. TSCA has also allowed chemical manufacturers to hide the ingredients used in some of their chemicals—so ingredients in 20% of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market are secret.

"New chemicals get a little more scrutiny, but the catch is that the EPA is not allowed to require companies to submit a minimum set of safety data with the new chemical that they are notifying the agency about for review," explains Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

In the past several decades, the number and volume of chemicals used in consumer products have risen dramatically. This is partially the result of manufacturers substituting synthetic materials in place of natural products. "There has been a proliferation of products, and a consumer demand for a variety of products," says Denison.

Unfortunately for consumers, it’s sometimes hard to know what chemicals are dangerous until large amounts of people have experienced negative effects. Take BPA, a now-infamous endocrine-disrupting chemical used to make everything from polycarbonate plastic bottles to epoxy can linings. Manufacturers used to say that there was no way people would get exposed to the chemical. "The mantra was that you don’t have to worry once it’s in a piece of plastic because it won’t get out," says Denison. Now, of course, we know that BPA leeches from plastic and can linings and ends up inside our bodies.

The stream of misinformation (and general lack of information) surrounding industrial chemicals may soon come to a halt if the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 is passed. The act, which will be voted on in the Senate in the near future, hopes to overhaul TSCA through a number of provisions. These include requiring chemical manufacturers to submit a minimum data set for every chemical they produce (and giving the EPA authority to demand more data if necessary); requiring the agency to putting the most widespread toxic chemicals on a priority review list; forcing the EPA to "impose conditions that will immediately reduce exposure" to these chemicals; and mandating that the agency create a program to establish safer alternatives to toxic chemicals.

The piece of the act that is perhaps most immediately relevant to consumers requires the EPA to establish a public database containing information about chemicals submitted to the agency as well as decisions made by the EPA about these chemicals. Even chemicals submitted as confidential business information will be viewable by some government officials, both at the local and state level. Chemical companies, in other words, will no longer be able to hide their toxic baggage.

The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates is not exactly thrilled about the Safe Chemicals Act. "There is broad stakeholder agreement that TSCA needs to be modernized, but the Safe Chemicals Act is not workable," said SOCMA President Lawrence D. Sloan in a recent statement. "It fails to adequately consider its impact on innovation or balance chemical safety with continued manufacturing in the US. Ultimately, the Safe Chemicals Act will have to consider how the costs and delays associated with increased data submission will impact US jobs. Right now, there has been insufficient discussion about this important issue."

But because of the work of organizations like Greenpeace, the Environmental Working Group, Perkins+Will, and U.S. PIRG, Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the role that toxic chemicals play in our daily lives—and in disease development. "Diseases are increasing in incidence that can only be explained by environmental exposure, including rising rates of leukemia, brain tumors in children, autism, asthma, reproductive problems, and learning and developmental disabilities," says Denison.

Even if this bill fails, the discussion will continue. Eventually, it may even get to the point where the EPA has no choice but to make drastic changes. Because as we have seen with the Occupy movement, hell hath no fury like a population scorned.