By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009
In a reversal, chemical industry leaders said last week they are joining environmentalists, public health groups and consumer advocates in seeking more robust federal regulation of chemicals.
For the first time, chemical manufacturers said they are willing to furnish the Environmental Protection Agency with health and exposure data they have gathered that are related to their chemicals, and to allow the agency to determine whether the chemicals are safe to use.
They said tougher government regulation is the best way to reassure consumers about the health impact of various chemicals.
"The fundamental duty of the chemical industry and government that regulates it is to make sure those products are safe," said Cal Dooley, president and chief executive of the American Chemistry Council.
The industry has long insisted that the 1976 federal law governing chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, has been working well.
But a number of critics, including the Government Accountability Office, say the law is weak and does not enable the government to ensure the safety of thousands of chemicals that have been introduced into consumer goods and the environment. This year, the GAO flagged chemical regulation as an urgent priority that Congress and the White House should address.
Dooley and top executives from several companies, including Dow, said the industry wants Congress to give the EPA new authority and resources to ensure the safety of chemicals used in such things as furniture, cellphones and grocery bags.
"This is a radical departure from where industry was a few months or a year ago," said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "We're getting to a point where industry feels it needs to play nicer cop here, if they're going to have a seat at the table and a voice in determining what they see as happening, which is reform."
The industry leaders said they want a strong federal policy because, in its absence, states and even localities are passing laws to restrict certain chemicals, making it nearly impossible for national companies to comply with a patchwork of rules.
"You're seeing more and more activity at the state level in terms of bans of certain chemicals or states trying to institute their own chemical management systems," Dooley said. "It's a reflection of their lack of confidence in the current regulatory system to assess the safety of those chemicals."
Under current laws, the government has little or no information about the health hazards or risks of most of the 80,000 chemicals on the U.S. market today.
When the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed, it exempted from regulation about 62,000 chemicals already in commercial use. Chemicals developed after the law's passage did not have to be tested for safety. Instead, companies were asked to report information on the health effects of their compounds, and the government would decide whether additional tests were needed.
In more than 30 years, the EPA has required additional studies for about 200 chemicals. The statute has made banning or restricting chemicals extremely difficult, and the EPA has banned just five chemicals since 1976.
Under the law, the government cannot act unless a chemical poses a health threat. However, the EPA cannot force companies to provide the kind of information that would show a health risk.
The hurdles are so high that the agency has been unable to ban asbestos, widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries. Instead, the EPA relies on the industry to cease voluntarily production of suspect chemicals.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) plans to reintroduce a bill in September that would overhaul U.S. chemical regulation. It would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use bio-monitoring studies to identify industrial chemicals that have become so common that they show up in the blood of newborn babies, then decide whether those chemicals should be restricted or banned. A study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found an average of 200 industrial chemicals in the umbilical cords of newborns.
The bill, known as the Kid-Safe Chemical Act, would require chemical manufacturers to provide health and safety information on chemicals and prove that they do not pose an unacceptable health risk before they could be used in products.
Dooley said the chemical trade group's declaring support for reform improves the chances that Lautenberg's bill will advance in Congress this session.
"If you can find greater alignment between environmental, consumer groups and industry, that can have an influence on Congressional scheduling of legislation to reform the law," Dooley said.