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Fixing Our Chemical Imbalance

They are the legacies of an innocent and more trusting era, when the idea of "better living through chemistry" appealed to our fascination with science.

We presumed these chemicals to be harmless and allowed them into the marketplace without adequate safeguards. Now they are ubiquitous in our environment. We inhale them. We swallow them. We touch them. They are more than 80,000 strong, these chemicals -- which can be used in infants' pajamas and children's toys, in cleaning supplies, in upholstery, in construction materials. The list is all but inexhaustible.

Finally, we will have a chance soon to begin undoing that Faustian bargain.

Pending in Congress are bills to put real teeth into the Toxic Substances Control Act. Known by its acronym, TSCA is a well-intentioned law enacted in 1976 -- one manifestation of a societal awakening in the aftermath of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. That event also spawned the modern-day environmental movement and gave us the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and all of our major environmental laws.

But TSCA came with several serious defects. When lawmakers passed the measure 34 years ago, they exempted 62,000 chemicals already in use at the time. Since then, 22,000 more chemicals have entered the market. To this day, manufacturers have revealed little or no information about these chemicals' potentially deleterious effects on human health or the environment -- because TSCA doesn't require such information.

The law gives chemicals the benefit of the doubt. This is quite different from the way the Food and Drug Administration regulates pharmaceuticals or the EPA regulates pesticides. In a classic catch-22, the law requires the EPA to prove a chemical is dangerous before the agency can restrict its use. Yet TSCA deprives the EPA of the authority to require manufacturers to produce testing data in the first place.

Little wonder that only five chemicals have been regulated under TSCA. Twenty-one years ago, when the EPA sought to restrict asbestos, a notoriously carcinogenic fire retardant, the agency was stymied by a thicket of legal obstacles. Since then, the EPA has not tried even once to ban another substance under its TSCA "authority." Many other chemicals now in use, as we have learned belatedly, can cause cancer, learning disabilities, infertility, birth defects, and other reproductive and developmental problems.

"Chemicals need to be proven safe before we let them be used in products that, literally, touch us all," says Linda Greer, director of NRDC’s health program. "We need to know much more about all the chemicals being concocted before we allow them to see the light of day. The days of 'presumed innocent' need to end." Modernizing TSCA would be a good start, Greer says.

"TSCA reform should require new and existing chemicals to be tested and should establish safety standards," says Daniel Rosenberg, an NRDC senior attorney. "The EPA needs to be empowered to act quickly to protect people."

Legislative proposals have been introduced in both the House and the Senate designed to correct TSCA’s most egregious defects. The House measure would, for instance, allow the EPA to take swift action against a dozen or more chemicals we already know to be harmful to human health, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium.

For all of TSCA's shortcomings, its journey through Congress is worth emulating today. The measure had bipartisan sponsors and passed with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats alike. The final tally was 73–6 in the Senate and 360–35 in the House.

Sadly, given today’s bitterly partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill -- some would call it toxic -- Republican support for strengthening TSCA may be a pipe dream, especially with the chemical industry already hard at work behind the scenes to derail the reform effort. But human health should not be held hostage to special-interest politics. Death and taxes are inescapable. Dangerous chemicals should not be.

image of Ed Chen
Edwin Chen is NRDC's federal communications director. He spent much of his career as a political journalist, mostly at The Los Angeles Times and, more recently, at Bloomberg News as its senior White House correspondent. He covered the Clinton, Bush... READ MORE >