Toxic chemicals law can now better protect us

For decades, tens of thousands of chemicals went untested and unregulated

[infographic] 1 out of 3 formulated products sold by major retailers contain chemicals known to pose health risks.

What’s at stake?
Our health. Certain chemicals used in everyday products are increasingly linked to cancer, infertility, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. Thousands of others have never been reviewed for safety. The scale of this problem is unknown, because there is no inventory of chemicals in active use. Estimates range widely, from 7,700 to 85,000.  

Aren’t chemicals in products required to be safe?
The main law meant to protect us, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), was badly broken from its start, in 1976.

Our government lacked the ability to regulate even known dangers such as lead, formaldehyde and asbestos.

Richard Denison, Ph.D. EDF scientist

Federal oversight didn’t keep pace with science or rapidly expanding production and use of chemicals. Companies didn’t have to clear even a basic safety review before using a chemical in consumer products, and the EPA had little power to remove hazardous chemicals already in the marketplace.

But the situation is better now?
Yes. In June 2016, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, and President Obama signed it into law. This bill is a “solid bipartisan compromise that fixes the biggest problems with our current law,” explains Denison, who has worked for TSCA reform for decades.

How does this new law make us safer?
It gives EPA the tools necessary to better ensure the safety of chemicals and significantly strengthen health protections for American families. Among other things, the bill:

  • requires EPA to review the safety of all new and existing chemicals, with clear priority-setting and concrete deadlines for decisions and regulatory action,
  • gives EPA new power to require testing and limit companies’ ability to hide information about chemicals as “trade secrets,” and
  • explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women.

So products on the shelves are safer now?
Not yet. “After nearly 40 years without a cop on the chemical beat, it will take time to fix this problem,” Denison says, “but the new law sets us firmly on that course.”

Now the work starts to implement the law and ensure it lives up to its promise. In December 2016, EPA moved to ban certain uses of trichloroethylene, which dry cleaners often apply to grease stains. You, too, might be using the chemical – tied to cancer and other diseases – in products that remove grease from parts in cars, bikes, guns and the like.

Moving potentially hazardous chemicals out of the products on store shelves is a big task. It won’t happen overnight, and this law alone won’t solve everything. For example, the Lautenberg Act does not cover potentially hazardous, unregulated chemicals in food – like BPA in food cans.

What else needs to be done?
We’re working in other ways to clean up chemicals in the marketplace, including partnering with Walmart to identify and remove the most hazardous chemicals from consumer products.

And there’s more work to be done in the policy world, too, to both improve other laws and make sure the Lautenberg Act is carried out effectively – and you can help.

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