STOKING FIRE: EPA Not Adequately Managing Risks of Chemicals in Consumer Products


Early in 2009, Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, conceded that “EPA is not doing an adequate job of assessing and managing the risks of chemicals in consumer products, the workplace, and the environment.”

You can say that again. Indeed, since the Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA] took effect in January 1977, only three chemicals have been banned—lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls—and only 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals on the EPA’s radar have been tested to determine whether they pose a danger to human health.

Meanwhile, US residents report skyrocketing rates of infertility, impacting both men and women, as well as an enormous spike in Autism Spectral Disorders, learning disabilities, and childhood cancers in the offspring we sire.

If this isn’t a right to life issue I don’t know what is.

According to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, a Washington, DC-based network of healthcare providers, environmental and disability rights groups, reproductive health activists, and concerned individuals, “scientists on the cutting edge of research have found that chemicals such as phthalates, Bisphenol A [BPA], perflourinated compounds, and cadmium are linked to reproductive health problems.“

The upshot, a Coalition fact sheet continues, is that twelve percent of US women now have difficulties conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy, a nearly 40 percent jump since 1982. Known culprits include fibroids, polycystic ovary syndrome, and endometriosis, conditions considered rare just three decades ago. Low sperm count in men, and sperm deformities, have also increased.

These findings—as well as information about the chemicals we imbibe and breathe–are hardly a state secret. A 2008 report released by the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services was one of several to sound an alarm about one of the worst threats to healthy reproduction, Bisphenol A—a substance used to make plastics and epoxy resins. Bisphenol A is a known endocrine disruptor, meaning that it mimics the body’s hormones to wreak havoc on health. Although the NTP’s study voiced “concern” about BPA’s impact on the brain, prostate gland, and development of fetuses and growing children, it stopped short of recommending that the substance be banned.

Canadian and European Union politicians, however, were far less circumspect and as data about the danger of BPA surfaced, they had no qualms about phasing it out and requiring manufacturers to remove it from products marketed to and used by newborns and infants. 

Canada also took action on toluene, a widely used solvent found in gasoline, lacquers, ink, rubber, and disinfectants—and in many nail polishes and perfumes—another chemical linked to reproductive ailments. The EPA’s own research corroborates toluene’s danger, demonstrating that fetuses exposed to it in utero are more likely to have attention deficits, nervous system disorders, and developmental delays than those who are not.

But has it been outlawed? Of course not.

Then there are phthalates, a vinyl softener—EPA estimates that 470 million pounds of them are produced annually—that like BPA, are known endocrine disruptors. Among the maladies attributed to phthalates: Cleft palate, skeletal malformations, and undescended testes.

To her credit, EPA head Lisa Jackson has indicated that EPA plans to begin reducing phthalate exposure in 2012. What’s more, she’s said that the EPA will “identify [other] priority chemicals for near-term evaluation.” As to what constitutes a priority, Jackson says that the Agency intends to use common sense, zeroing in on chemicals “where extensively reviewed data indicates they are carcinogens, cause reproductive/developmental concerns, or are identified as persistent bioaccumulative, and toxic.”

Although the plan sounds relatively tame, environmentalists are nonetheless skeptical about the Agency’s ability to carry this objective forward. They point to the Safer Chemicals Act of 2011, a bill introduced by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg in April—presently stalled in the Environment and Public Works Committee–that would update TSCA by making chemical manufacturers accountable for proving chemical safety and requiring them to submit regularly scheduled reports to the EPA. The Act would also empower the Agency to take whatever actions are necessary to reduce human contact with risk-laden products. 

You ask: Why is the bill languishing?  Activists blame the American Chemical Council, an industry trade association, for quashing all attempts to limit what manufacturers can and can’t do. A look at what transpired when Jackson’s EPA attempted to regulate clean-up and limit exposure to trichloroethylene, or TCE, last month is illustrative.  Despite the fact that TCE is known to negatively impact fetal development and harm the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and male reproductive systems of adults who are exposed to it, the industry went ballistic over EPA attempts to change how it does business. Pressure was brought to bear and the expected regulations were never announced.

“The public wants to be protected from exposure to toxic chemicals in the air, the water, and the products they bring into their homes every day,” concludes Daniel Rosenberg, a Natural Resources Defense Council blogger. “But it seems that the White House isn’t thinking about health, the environment, or the public, only about what the chemical industry and other big polluters are demanding.”

Fisk Johnson, CEO of S.C. Johnson, admitted as much in a keynote speech before the American Chemical Society last June: “Your child has a better chance of becoming a major league baseball player,” he quipped, “than a chemical has of being regulated by EPA.”

President Obama has the power to prove Johnson wrong by pushing the EPA to fulfill its mandate. But whether he’ll finally get off the bench and do something to protect the health of the American people remains to be seen

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