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Don't Ask, Don't Tell

When a chemical maker or user gets new information about the possible health hazards of one of its products, it's supposed to tell the EPA. The EPA maintains a website that is supposed to make this information available to the public. But when reporters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel took a look at some of these so-called Section 8(e) reports, here's what they found:

One report, posted by an unnamed company about an unnamed chemical, shows that if the substance is inhaled, it produces "foamy macrophages" or diseased cells, in the lungs of rats. The report also indicates the chemical may cause pulmonary fibrosis—a deadly and irreversible disease in people.

There is no way to know if this is a chemical coming out of a smokestack in some town or a concern for workers at a factory. The write-up does not say where the chemical is produced or used.

Nor is there any indication in the description of what this chemical is or how it works.

Well, that's certainly helpful.

How are chemical companies able to keep such vital information under wraps? By claiming it's a trade secret—"confidential business information" that if disclosed would enable its competitors to make the same nasty stuff and infringe on the company's right to profit endangering the lives of Americans.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) says that chemical makers can't claim confidentiality when public health is at stake. But the EPA has chosen to ignore that inconvenient truth. The newspaper's investigation found that almost 60 percent of 8(e) reports since 2005 have some key information redacted.

The coverup of chemical trade secrets is one more of a long list of reasons TSCA is widely regarded as the most toothless of the nation's environmental laws. Earthjustice is one of the groups leading the campaign for toxics reform by replacing TSCA with the Kid Safe Chemicals Act (KSCA), which would require chemical companies to prove that their products are safe for children before putting them on the market. With the ascension of Rep. Henry Waxman of California, one of KSCA's co-sponsors, to the chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, 2009 may be the year we start to see some movement on the issue.

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