Is your shopping cart free of toxic chemicals? It's not that simple.

Rachel Shaffer

Each time we discuss the health impact of chemicals on this blog, we get a slew of questions and comments. Some readers wonder why we raise a problem about certain chemicals or their effects without offering concrete steps people can take to avoid them. Why don’t we offer wallet cards, fridge magnets or other handouts that list safe products to help people stay safe?

We understand and share the same frustration. But here’s the challenge we wrestle with: Individual action can’t really solve this problem – not even for the most cautious shoppers, and definitely not for society as a whole.

Yes, you should shop organic and take steps to minimize the chemicals you’re using every day. But what we need most is to attack the problem at its roots.

That’s why EDF has focused so hard for so long on fixing our nation’s primary chemical safety law, which is badly outdated and ineffective.

The 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act provides no assurance that chemicals we encounter every day are safe. The flaws in the law are most apparent with the failure to regulate known carcinogens such as asbestos and formaldehyde. Unfortunately, those high-profile chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg.

 Here is some of what we don’t know about the chemicals we encounter every day:

  • We don’t know if the chemicals in our homes pose risks to our health. The law is so weak that a vast majority of chemicals enter and remain on the market without being screened for safety.
  • We don’t know the full range of chemicals being used in America. While we know the number is less than 84,000, –we don’t know all of the chemicals that are actually in use today. Companies are not required to report their use of many chemicals to the government, and a laissez-faire approach to trade secret claims has masked the identity even of many reported chemicals.
  • We don’t know how or where most chemicals are being used. For the same reasons, we have only spotty information on where and how chemicals are used – and, hence, how we may be exposed to them.
  • We don’t even know which chemicals are safe! The current system fails not only to address chemicals that pose risks, but also fails to generate the information we need to identify chemicals that pose little or no risk.

What we do know about some chemicals gives substantial reason to require that the safety of all chemicals be scrutinized. Research has shown links between certain chemical exposures and serious chronic diseases and disorders, including infertility, Parkinson’s, and certain cancers.

Chances are, we’re all exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals in our everyday lives. For example, we now know that the chemicals added to the foam in upholstered furniture that are supposed to slow fires end up in house dust that we, our children and our pets end up inhaling and ingesting.

Indeed, researchers have found hundreds of common synthetic chemicals linked to health problems in the bodies of nearly all Americans.

What’s more, removing a chemical of concern from the market does not guarantee it will be replaced with a safer one. The endocrine-disrupting chemical BPA has been removed from some uses but is often replaced by a related chemical that research is beginning to show is similarly troublesome.

The solution? We need to change the law

All this might sound disheartening, but there is a solution: Change the law. New chemicals should be assessed for safety before they come on the market.

All chemicals currently in use should be screened too and the longer we put it off, the longer we’ll face uncertainty and suffer health effects from those that do pose concerns. EPA needs to have authority to get the data it needs to assess chemicals, and where risks are found it must have the power to regulate the chemicals appropriately.

Passing a new law is easier said than done, but after decades of intractable differences, members on both sides of the aisle – in both Houses of Congress – are finally making real strides toward reform. Details matter and significant changes to the initial proposals are necessary to ensure the new law works.

Now is the time to take action, seize this moment of bipartisanship, and put in place a system that will ensure chemicals are safe.

Until then, the only thing that we’ll know with certainty is that our uncertainty, and frustration, will continue.