Nation's toxic chemical law fails to protect us

EPA has little power to keep harmful chemicals out of household products

Richard Denison

For more than a decade, EDF senior scientist Richard Denison, Ph.D., has worked to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Jay Mallin


Ever watched the dust fly when you flop down on the couch?

Most of us have. And that means most of us have been exposed to toxic flame retardants—chemicals linked to several neurocognitive problems in children.

They’re in your couch cushions and get in the dust that is released every time you sit on and compress them.

For all the downside risks, studies show that they don’t even do a very good job of what they are meant to do: prevent or slow fires.

How can this be? Shouldn't we be safe from toxic chemicals?

EPA powerless to protect us

"Most people think somebody must be making sure the chemicals we use are safe," says EDF biochemist Richard Denison, Ph.D. "But it’s essentially the Wild West."

This quagmire is due in part to the ineffective, outdated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It's never been updated, even though it's so weak that it essentially allows manufacturers and companies to use hazardous chemicals in many household products, even if there are known health risks.

Two of TSCA's biggest flaws: Companies don't have to test a chemical before using it in consumer products, and the Environmental Protection Agency has little power to remove hazardous chemicals from the marketplace.

How do we fix this?

Reforming TSCA is our chief goal, as it's the front line in the effort to truly guarantee chemical safety for Americans, and restore faith in U.S. products.

"We must transform the current system that allows dangerous or untested chemicals to stay on store shelves," he said.

Private sector improvements

While updating TSCA remains our top policy priority, we've also sought out additional ways to clean up the marketplace. Specifically, we're working directly with businesses to identify and remove the most hazardous chemicals from consumer products.

Walmart graphic

For example, we recently helped Walmart—the world's largest retailer—establish a chemicals policy that will move priority chemicals out of tens of thousands of personal care and household products. The policy also calls for safer substitutes to ensure that the removal of one hazardous chemical doesn't lead to replacement with another.

Whenever a name brand manufacturer changes their product supply to comply with Walmart's new policy, the effect will ripple across the global supply chain. This will help protect consumers everywhere, including the tens of millions of Americans who shop at Walmart.

A new law is essential

But, of course, working with a handful of businesses isn't enough. We must update the law.

And that may finally happen: The bipartisan Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is pending in Congress.

While CSIA needs major changes, Denison said, it does address some of the core flaws in TSCA. For example, it will mandate safety reviews of all chemicals currently in commerce, and require a new chemical to be found likely to meet a safety standard before approval.

Denison is optimistic that members of Congress can make important improvements to the bill, including providing explicit protections for the most vulnerable, like infants and children, and significantly narrowing the bill's imposition on state laws. Coupled with these fundamental improvements, the bill would finally allow EPA to do its job protecting Americans from toxic chemicals.

For these reasons, we're advocating for Congress to strengthen and pass CSIA. The alternative—staying with the status quo—is unacceptable.

We have a key political opening to fix an urgent health concern and overhaul an obsolete law.

Dr. Richard Denison EDF senior scientist

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