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The Right to Know Reader: Our Current Laws Do Not Protect You From Toxic Chemicals

A sign warning of the presence of asbestos.

Even the EPA regulation banning virtually all uses of asbestos, a dangerous and well-known carcinogen, was struck down by the courts as not authorized because TSCA requires the “least burdensome” approach for the industry.

Ashley Whitworth / Shutterstock

Every day, just in the course of normal activities, we are exposed to an unbelievable range of toxic chemicals that we may not know about. Of the 80,000 plus chemicals that have been approved to be on the market in the United States, approximately 24,000 are “secret”. Literally, we don’t know what they are.

From Bisphenol A in water bottles and cash register receipts, toxic flame retardants in furniture, and phthalates in food containers and air fresheners, to formaldehyde in hair salons that use hair-straightening products, it is nearly impossible to escape exposure to chemicals that have been linked to cancer, endocrine-disruption, liver disease and more.

If you believe that our current laws and regulations protect you and your family from all these chemicals, you are mistaken.

The main law that governs the safety of chemical products, the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), is woefully outdated and weak. Full of loopholes and provisions that protect chemical and product manufacturers instead of people, TSCA continues to be interpreted and implemented in a way that creates secrecy, not safety, in the chemical industry.

How bad is the law? Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation banning virtually all uses of asbestos, a dangerous and well-known carcinogen, was struck down by the courts as not authorized because TSCA requires the “least burdensome” approach for the industry. This language continues to deter the EPA from protecting us from risky chemicals.

If TSCA fails to protect us from asbestos, Bisphenol A, toxic flame retardants, phthalates and formaldehyde, then what other toxic chemicals does it allow in our daily lives?

Recent proposals in Congress to reform TSCA fail to address the level of secrecy in the chemicals industry and do little to address the main failings of the current law. Politicians continue to place the burden on the EPA to prove a chemical is unsafe rather than making manufacturers prove their products are nontoxic.

Earthjustice has been working hard for years with partners like the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition that represents more than 11 million people from across the nation to advocate for meaningful reform to the TSCA.

A true reform bill would give the EPA a clear mandate to judge the safety of chemicals based solely on their effect on human health and the environment.

True reform would also include transparency: We have a right to know what potentially dangerous chemicals are in the products we buy and use. The EPA should also be able to require manufacturers to submit needed information about the toxicity of chemicals they produce. And all of this information should be available to you, me and the rest of the public.

The most vulnerable populations—children, the elderly, communities that are already overburdened by chemical plants and waste sites with toxic contamination and other at-risk populations—must be protected. The EPA should be given strict timelines to ban the most dangerous chemicals, and the burden must be shifted onto manufacturers to prove that new chemicals and products are safe.

Thanks to the lack of long overdue reform to the TSCA, there’s an awful lot we don’t know about the dangerous chemicals we are exposed to every single day.

Educating families about the toxic chemicals in our daily lives and working to enact meaningful reform of TSCA are just a few of the ways Earthjustice is protecting the health of our families, communities and the environment. Every family has a right to know the truth about the toxics that threaten their health. Find out how Earthjustice is helping to protect you from harmful toxics.

(This blog post first appeared in the Huffington Post.)

The Right to Know Reader is a series of blog posts to educate families on the toxic chemicals in their daily lives. Earthjustice is working to enact stronger protections from these toxic chemicals for our families, communities and the environment because everyone deserves to know the truth about harmful toxics. Read past posts in this series.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.