Nation's toxic chemical law fails to protect us

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

Richard Denison

EDF senior scientist Richard Denison, left, has testified multiple times before Congressional committees on the need for toxic chemicals reform.

Fred Watkins


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This quagmire is due in part to the ineffective, outdated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).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

Walmart graphic

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.

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: Congress has the best chance in a generation to protect our health by bringing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) into the 21st century. After years of debate and inaction, in March 2015 a bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation—the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act—that fixes the biggest problems with the current law.

The bill would update the current law and give EPA the tools necessary to ensure the safety of chemicals and significantly strengthen health protections for American families. Among other improvements, the bill:

  • mandates safety reviews for all chemicals in active commerce
  • replaces TSCA’s burdensome cost-benefit safety standard with a pure, health-based standard,
  • and explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women.

“Rare political circumstances have opened a narrow window to pass meaningful reform that protects the health of American families,” Denison said.

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