Safer Chemicals for Earth Day

By Emily Myers

It’s Earth Day and we have something to celebrate:  Healthystuff.org released a report on the use toxic chemicals called phthalates in vinyl flooring. Phthalates have been shown to be hormone disruptors and could cause many health problems including reproductive issues. As mentioned in the report, the Mind the Store campaign of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, a campaign to push big retailers to do the right thing and put safer products on their shelves, has achieved a major milestone. One of the largest retailers in the country will remove phthalates in all virgin vinyl flooring by the end of this year. This is great! It will help protect consumers from having unsafe chemicals in their homes.

However, the effort of the Mind the Store campaign may be undermined by a “reform” policy that would not make much progress in blocking companies from using toxic chemicals in their products. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the federal law that is supposed to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in products, but it has not been effective in getting harmful additives out of our consumer products. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and David Vitter (R-La) have introduced a bill to reform the TSCA, but it is problematic in several ways.

First, one of the main provisions of this bill would preempt states’ autonomy to restrict or ban toxic chemicals. The bill also stipulates that states cannot co-enforce existing federal regulations. However, state powers have historically encouraged the eradication of unsafe chemicals on the market. Pick up any Nalgene bottle and chances are there’s a sticker reading “BPA free” on the side. Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a chemical widely used to harden plastic in goods like water bottles, baby bottles, the lining of food cans, and other everyday products. There are questions around the use of BPA because a growing body of evidence shows that it disrupts the hormonal balance of the body, leads to abnormal development, and is linked to an increased risk of cancer in animals.

The elimination of BPA in consumer products is mostly due to state-led efforts. In 2009, Minnesota banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, causing several other states to follow suit. Because it is more economical and much better for public perception for manufacturers to make safer, BPA free products for all states rather than tailor their manufacturing to each state’s laws, BPA has disappeared from virtually all baby bottles and many other plastic products.

Why should a bill aimed to further regulate the use of harmful chemicals in consumer products limit states’ powers to regulate toxics like BPA in everyday goods like water bottles?

Excessive limitation on states’ abilities to protect their own citizens is not the only problem with the current TSCA reform proposal. The bill also increases the amount of red tape the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must navigate in order to do their jobs and restrict harmful chemicals from entering the American consumer market. For example, if the EPA considers a chemical found in 100 different consumer products to be harmful, the bill requires the agency make a legal finding on each individual product rather than allowing them to make a broad ruling restricting all 100.

Lastly, Udall and Vitter’s proposal includes a gaping loophole which encourages chemical companies to try to influence the EPA and in turn make products less safe for consumers. Under the bill, chemicals are categorized as either High Priority or Low Priority. If the EPA decides a chemical is High Priority they thoroughly review it and if it is thought to be unsafe the agency imposes appropriate regulations and restrictions. In other words, the EPA does its job. However, if a chemical is deemed Low Priority, it’s considered “likely to meet” safety standards, and waved through the process.

If the chemical is given this ambiguous label it is considered safe to use for all purposes. If I were the head of a chemical company driven by profit, I would do everything in my power to ensure my product was given the murky Low Priority label. Given these provisions, does the Udall-Vitter proposal sound more like comprehensive reform or deregulation of the use of chemicals in our everyday products?

Real TSCA reform is good for both American consumers and business owners: a 2012 poll demonstrated that 75% of small business owners support stronger regulation of chemicals used in everyday goods and 93% see fair regulation as an essential part of a contemporary economy. Real TSCA reform is good and necessary, but the Udall-Vitter bill is not reform at all. In honor of Earth Day please join Public Citizen and its allies in opposing the Udall-Vitter bill in its current form and urging Congress to pass true reform on the issue.

Emily Myers is an intern with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division