What's clear, colorless and may cause cancer?
If it were up to the chemical industry, you might never know that the answer is styrene. It doesn't matter that it's found in thousands of consumer products like fiberglass and food containers, or that you
smell it every time you open a fresh can of paint. Or, that the international scientific community has long agreed that styrene causes cancer in mice and increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma in workers.
For years, the chemical industry, led largely by the American Chemistry Council, has succeeded in keeping health and safety information about toxic chemicals like styrene out of the public eye. We know little about the health and environmental effects of approximately 78,000 chemicals on the market—thanks in large part to industry lobbying and a broken chemical law known as the Toxic Substances Control Act. Even if we do know that a chemical is toxic, we can't avoid it because companies often don't have to disclose their products' ingredients.
What little information the public does receive is usually provided by government or through significant legal or public pressure by organizations like Earthjustice that believe the public has a right to know what's lurking in their environments and in their bodies. On behalf of national and regional groups, Earthjustice has filed a range of petitions and lawsuits calling for better disclosure and regulation on chemicals found in oil dispersants, household cleaners and pesticides.
Earthjustice's work on styrene began two summers ago after the Department of Health and Human Services listed styrene as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" for the first time in its biannual Report on Carcinogens (RoC).
On the heels of the announcement, the chemical industry pulled out its well-worn playbook on silencing chemical information: cherry-pick data to cast doubt on a scientific conclusion, file a lawsuit, call on your friends in Washington for backup, and repeat.
As the chemical industry knows all too well, if you throw enough mud at the wall, something is bound to stick. Even when there are hundreds of studies pointing to one conclusion, at least one study, no matter how inconclusive or biased, will point in the opposite direction. That one study is all the industry needs to argue for a delay in banning its product, even as evidence of harm stacks up.
As a result, regulators are paralyzed by never-ending review, while workers and consumers are stuck with a system that fails to regulate even chemicals as cancerous as dioxins and asbestos. Meanwhile, people exposed to the chemicals in question become real-life guinea pigs for the chemical industry.
"We don't want to wait until we have exposed enough people to a chemical in order to prove that it's carcinogenic," says Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and a member of the National Research Council Report Review Committee. "When we hit that point, we have hit a failure in the regulatory process."
In the case of styrene, a flammable liquid that's derived from fossil fuels, the chemical industry threw the first fistful of mud during the report's creation. It repeatedly argued that the styrene assessments were flawed—a claim that was rejected outright by external reviewers that voted for the carcinogen listing. Two of those reviewers even felt that styrene should be listed as a "known," rather than a "reasonably anticipated" human carcinogen.
Second, the styrene industry sued the government to keep it from listing styrene as potentially cancerous. Earthjustice, representing public health advocates and the United Steelworkers whose members include styrene-exposed workers, quickly came to the government's defense in court.
"This case is about the public's right to have scientifically sound information about toxic chemicals," said Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado, who is representing the groups in court. "If the government can't successfully list styrene, even with all of this evidence pointing to its cancer-causing properties, then we are really in a bad place in terms of keeping the public safe from toxic chemicals."
While the industry went to court, its lobbyists were busy working the Hill. According to federal lobbying data, the Styrene Information and Research Council doubled its lobbying expenditures to $570,000 in 2011. Also in 2011, the American Chemistry Council spent $10 million on lobbying against issues like chemical regulation reform.
The investment paid off.
In December of that same year, the chemical industry successfully convinced industry-friendly legislators to require a $1 million follow-up study on styrene, even though the RoC is already peer-reviewed and is drawn from peer-reviewed studies.
But it didn't stop there. Ultimately, the chemical industry wants to keep government from listing chemicals as carcinogens at all, so it successfully lobbied Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor and Health and Human Services. In July 2012, he proposed a rider in the 2013 funding bill that cuts the budget for the RoC entirely until the follow-up study is completed, which could take up to five years.
The FY13 rider was like a love letter to the American Chemistry Council, which sent a similar request to Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius just two months prior. The letter was highly critical of the RoC, and it urged Sebelius to suspend development of the next report until the follow-up study was completed.
"We think that our members and everybody else deserves to be told the truth," says Michael Wright, Director of Health, Safety and Environment at United Steelworkers. "The truth, in the case of science, ought to be determined by scientists."
United Steelworkers, together with more than 70 physicians and occupational health experts, have spoken out against the chemical industry's actions because they rely heavily on consensus documents like the RoC to provide their patients and members with up-to-date information on chemical toxicity and workplace exposure. In the case of styrene, the goal is not to shut down the industry, says Wright, but to ensure that workers are aware of styrene's risks so that they can take the proper precautions.
"If styrene were taken off of the market, the workers who manufacture it could lose their jobs," says Wright. "Our basic philosophy is, if a material has a social value, the job is to use it safely."
Over the past few years, the idea that people have a right to know about hazardous chemicals has spread from hospitals and union meetings to water coolers and mommy blogs across the country. Thanks to increased media attention and research on toxic chemicals, people are becoming more aware of their chemical body burden every day. And, they're reacting to this increased awareness by seeking out safer alternatives to toxic chemicals—a phenomenon known as "product de-selection" that the chemical industry has long feared.
Today, many states and even some companies like Wal-Mart have responded to this consumer demand by phasing out toxic chemicals like bisphenol A, which has been linked to behavioral and physical changes in infants and children. In the summer of 2011, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee took a step further by voting in favor of the Safe Chemicals Act, a landmark bill that strengthens federal chemical regulation by requiring manufacturers to prove their chemicals are safe in order to put them on the shelf. The bill is backed by a growing list of consumers, health professionals, small business owners and even the Government Accountability Office—the investigative arm of Congress—that want reform.
Though a pivotal first step, the Safe Chemicals Act must go up against the chemical industry and its legislative allies before it can become law. Currently, the bill lacks any Republican co-sponsors.
"This fight is about safeguarding all Americans from toxic chemicals and ensuring that workers and vulnerable populations who face disproportionate exposure are protected," says Andrea Delgado, legislative representative at Earthjustice, who is working with a national coalition to reform chemical regulation called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
"The chemical industry wants to protect the market for their products, undermining science at the expense of public health. But we can't wait for the bodies to fall before we start taking dangerous chemicals off of the market."
Written by Jessica A. Knoblauch. First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Winter 2012 issue.
As scientific evidence mounts of connections between the prevalence of chemicals in our environment and chronic diseases like asthma, autism, diabetes and certain cancers, it's clear that we need strong new federal laws now.