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.
Don't chemicals in products have to be safe?
The main law meant to protect us, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), was badly broken from its start, in 1976. 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 Environmental Protection Agency had little power to remove hazardous chemicals already in the marketplace.
Is the situation better now?
The law is much stronger. In June 2016, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, and President Obama signed it into law.
However, after a strong start, the EPA under the Trump administration is stymieing or reversing progress made under the new law, setting back the bipartisan intent for stronger protections from toxic chemicals.
How can this new law make us safer?
If carried out as intended, the new law provides EPA the tools necessary to better ensure the safety of chemicals and significantly strengthen health protections for American families. Among other things, the law:
- 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."
- Explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations, such as children and pregnant women.
But the law is only as good as its implementation, and right now it faces serious threats from an administration too beholden to the chemical industry.
Are products on the shelves safer now?
Not yet. After the law passed, the Obama administration started off strong to implement the law and ensure it lives up to its promise.
For example, in December 2016, EPA proposed banning certain uses of trichloroethylene, which dry cleaners often apply to grease stains. You, too, might be using the chemical – known to cause cancer and other diseases – in products that remove grease from parts in cars, bikes, guns and the like.
But new leadership at EPA backed off these proposals after the chemical industry complained.
In fact, much of the progress made after the law passed has stalled or has even been reversed under the Trump administration. So EDF and others are challenging EPA in court to hold the agency accountable to the requirements of the Lautenberg Act.
Moving potentially hazardous chemicals out of the products on store shelves is a big task. It won't happen overnight, and even with strong implementation 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 still needs to be done?
We're fighting every day to push back against this administration's efforts to weaken implementation of the new law.
We're also 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.
There's much more work to do in the policy world, too, to both improve other laws and make sure the Lautenberg Act is carried out effectively.
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