Minds, Bodies, Babies: Will the Safe Chemicals Act Ease Your Worries?

Of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals registered for use in the United States, very little is known about most of them.
Until recently, BPA—a toxic substance linked to neurological damage—was found in baby bottles. (Photo: Vetta/Getty Images)

Jul 26, 2012· 3 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

If you were ever concerned about Bisphenol-A in baby bottles, or the effects of flame-retardants on the human body, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has just the legislation for you.

A Senate committee approved a major overhaul yesterday to the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that ostensibly protected the American public from toxic chemicals, but instead ended up increasing exposure to phthlates, perabins, and thousands of other chemicals that were not adequately tested before entering household items and personal care products.

The new bill, the Safe Chemicals Act, intends to make it impossible for companies to introduce chemicals into the marketplace before proving that they are safe for the environment and the American public. If the bill passes the full Senate and then the House, it will represent a huge step forward in the regulation of toxic chemicals.

MORE: New Study Says Fracking Chemicals Will Poison Aquifers

This week I spoke with Alex Formuzis of the Environmental Working Group, about the legislation and its ability to improve public health and safety:

TakePart: Why is the Safe Chemicals Act so historic?

Alex Formuzis: If the Safe Chemicals Act passes, every chemical going forward, from here on out, would have to be proven safe before it would be allowed into the marketplace.

The Lautenberg proposal would flip the burden of proof, and place it where it should be, on the chemical industry, to prove that chemical industry products are in fact safe, and that there’s a reasonable certainty no harm would come to human health, before they are allowed or approved for use in consumer products.

Right now chemicals are fast tracked into the marketplace with little or no review at all. Approximately 80,000 chemicals have been produced in total, and 20,000 plus since the 1976 law went into effect. These have been approved for use in consumer goods with almost no testing.

TakePart: How does consumer protection work under the current TSCA law?

Alex Formuzis: It’s almost impossible to ban a chemical under the current law. In fact, during the first Bush administration, George H.W. Bush tried to ban asbestos and failed. His administration tried to apply TSCA when making this case in federal court that asbestos posed an extreme threat to the public [asbestos is a toxic mineral fiber that kills 100,000 people around the world each year], and the court threw it out—the law was too weak.

Only five of the 80,000 chemicals that have been produced have ever had any restrictions placed on them. Right now, if you produce a chemical, the burden is on the Environmental Protection Agency to prove that that chemical poses harm to people or the environment. [The EPA] only has a couple of months to prove that, and it’s impossible to make the case in a matter of a few weeks that this new chemical is going to cause x, y, or z health problems. That’s how these chemicals get issued into the marketplace so quickly. The timeline that EPA is working with is too short.

TakePart: Senator Lautenberg originally introduced a version of the Safe Chemicals Act in 2005, but the bill never made it out of Committee. What has changed since 2005?

Alex Formuzis: The biggest factor is the public getting educated about these issues. Let’s take Bisphenol-A (BPA) as an example. BPA was widely used in consumer goods such as baby bottles, sippy cups, and lining of cans. As independent research continued to be published showing that BPA was a primary suspect for a number of health problems that were on the rise, many of which were affecting children, the government wasn’t doing anything to remove it. But the marketplace began listening to consumers, and companies began removing BPA from baby bottles. It’s almost impossible to find those products with BPA in them anymore. All of that is because consumers have growing concern.

TakePart: Environmental Working Group has been at the forefront of testing that shows that harmful chemicals are present in our bodies. Can you give us an example of the groundbreaking research your organization has conducted?

Alex Formuzis: In 2004 and again in 2008, we acquired 10 samples of umbilical cord blood and had them tested. We found a couple of hundred chemicals in each sample. That was the first time anyone looked at toxic chemicals in umbilical cord blood. What that told us was that people—babies—were being polluted with a mix of toxic chemicals before they were even born. Before that, we knew chemicals were in the air, in the water, but people didn’t know if babies were being exposed to chemicals in the womb. This research put that to rest. We are being polluted in utero. What does that mean for developing babies? In these periods in their lives, they are developing faster than any other period. What does it mean when you have chemicals flowing through these little bodies?

TakePart: Now that the bill has made it out of the Senate Committee, what’s next?

Alex Formuzis: Obviously there’s not a lot of time left in this Congressional season, which mucks up the work in terms of Congressional action on legislation. Now that it has passed the Environment and Public Works committee, it is up to the Senate leadership to decide if they will bring it to the floor.

I’m hopeful that that could play out and the rest of the Senate could be given the chance to weigh in and support this legislation, but it’s an uphill battle. The question is will everyone come together, cross the aisles, and bring environmental advocates, consumer groups, and the industry together to create a plan to fix the problem?

TakePart: What can TakePart readers do to take action on this issue?

Alex Formuzis: Get in touch with your members of Congress. Call your Senators and tell them to support bringing the bill to the floor. The public should also urge their Representatives in Congress to call for similar legislation to be brought to the House.

How worried are you about toxic chemicals? Tell us in the comments.