Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, part 2

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Section 1 can be found here.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

II. How bad could it be? I bought it at the supermarket.

I want to digress for a moment and discuss chemicals policy in this country. I know that sounds really boring and you're thinking "how wonky can you be?" -- but it's important to understand how chemicals are regulated in the U.S. so we can see how a product that is known to cause asthma or birth defects can be perfectly legal.

This is also the key to understanding a whole constellation of issues - from toxic toys to lead in lipstick to BPA in baby bottles -- that have been in the news lately. I think sometimes these news stories start to feel so arbitrary and overwhelming that it's hard to make sense of them -- is everything toxic? So I want to explain where we are.

As mentioned, most of our laws governing the use of chemicals in consumer products -- the stuff we use every day, like shampoo, makeup, toys, water bottles, furniture, paint, and cleaning products -- come from a mid-20th century ideal that all industry was good.

As a result, the main law governing chemicals in this country, the Toxic Substance Control Act, passed in 1976, literally assumes everything on the market at that point must be safe. This was not based on scientific testing, epidemiology, health studies.... nothing but the political expediency of regulating hundreds of thousands of chemicals: how do you do it?

The way Congress chose was to grandfather in everything on the market in 1976 and leave it on the market with no scrutiny at all. This is still over 90% of chemicals in our products today, almost none of which have ever been tested for their effects on human health.

The law then says that for future chemicals to come on the market, they would have to be submitted to the government before going on the market. And what do you think is required in that pre-market notice? The manufacturer would have to test the chemical and show that it didn't harm human health? No. It didn't cause environmental damage? No. At least it wasn't the worst tool for the job? No.

Basically manufacturers don't have to show any health or safety information at all, unless they happen to have done it on their own. Government has a brief chance to try to spot a problem if they can; otherwise industry can legally put substances on the market without testing them for safety , label them for any variety of uses, and they're good to go.

The end result is that thousands more chemicals have been put on the market since 1976 with little or, often, no information about their safety at all.

So, you might ask, where's the regulation in this regulatory system? As it stands, the EPA has the power to remove a toxic chemical from the market only if the EPA can prove that it's dangerous. This takes years of scientific testing, and often ends in the EPA being sued by the manufacturer of that chemical.

So while years go by, real people are being harmed by these chemicals - the bodies are piling up. We know a whole suite of dangerous chemicals crosses the placenta and can affect a developing baby in utero.

We find chemicals in umbilical cord blood and breastmilk. And still this is not enough for the EPA to take action. In fact, with over 81,000 chemicals on the market, the EPA has restricted only five since 1976.

This is backwards. Instead of the EPA having to prove that a chemical is dangerous before they can take it off the market, a manufacturer should have to show that it's safe before putting it on the market. This is called "shifting the burden of proof," and it is the main reason why so many of the products we live with every day have the potential to harm our health.

It's worthwhile to note that the European Union actually passed a sweeping chemicals reform law recently that does shift the burden of proof and require safety testing from manufacturers before a product is allowed on the market. And as we know, Europe's economy is stronger than ours. In fact, some US manufacturers are now making two parallel product lines: one with dangerous chemicals, for the US market, and one without, for the European Union (you see some products now, like Avalon Organics cosmetics, that say "EU compliant" -- meaning they're selling the same, safer product in the U.S. that they're selling in Europe).

Manufacturers know how to make their products safer in a cost- effective way. There is no reason for this backward system in the US other than bad political decisions.

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, www.sehn.org. Contact Katie@sehn.org. This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

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