Taking on Toxic Chemicals With the Right Tool

EPA chief asks Congress for new law to protect public from toxic threats

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Suppose I asked you to drive a nail into the wall and then handed you a banana to do it. At best you’d make a mess of it—the same mess faced by the Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to keeping the public safe from toxic chemicals. Right job, wrong tool.

Congress handed the EPA a banana in 1976 called the Toxic Substances Control Act, a law that EPA chief Lisa Jackson herself recently described as "an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects." The numbers bear her out: EPA has required safety testing of only 200 of the roughly 82,000 chemicals registered for use under TSCA. These are chemicals in products that we all encounter every day, from household cleaners to cell phones, toys, carpets and food containers. The result is more potentially hazardous chemicals in our bodies than ever before.

Recognizing this tremendous failure to protect the public, Jackson is asking Congress for a hammer.

The tools she says EPA needs to keep toxic chemicals off the shelves—unveiled in a recent speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club—are based on pure common sense. Chemicals should be proven safe before they are approved for use in products, and the burden of conducting studies and proving safety should be on chemical manufacturers, not government. If industry can’t scientifically demonstrate a chemical’s safety, it should not be allowed on the market.

Remarkably, current law doesn’t work that way. TSCA’s lax requirements for safety data translate to precious little assurance that even commonly used chemicals won’t harm us or our children. In more than 30 years, EPA has banned only five chemicals, and a court overturned its ban on asbestos.

This is all the more troubling given evidence of infants with more chemicals in their bodies than bones. Jackson noted in her speech that "a 2005 study found 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies—chemicals from pesticides, fast food packaging, coal and gasoline emissions, and trash incineration… Our kids are getting steady infusions of industrial chemicals before we even give them solid food."

We all deserve better. That’s why Earthjustice attorneys will soon argue a case in New York state court that aims to get household cleaning manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive to disclose the names and health effects of chemicals in their cleaning products, so that consumers have access to the information they need to protect themselves and their families.

It’s also critical to address the disproportionate impact of toxics on communities of color. We recently moderated a forum at the Congressional Black Caucus on the failure of TSCA to protect communities of color, which featured several environmental justice and labor leaders from around the country, to increase awareness of the need for TSCA reform among this important Congressional contingent.

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. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) are expected to soon introduce companion bills to reform TSCA. When they do, we can all tell Congress to give EPA the hammer it needs to deal with toxic chemicals.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”