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Doesn't the government protect me?

I (Leigh Anne) wanted to answer this question, because early in our journey I was telling a friend about the many toxic chemicals found in the fabrics we live with, and she asked if the government didn't have laws in place to govern our exposure to these chemicals. I was stopped in my tracks, because I agreed with her. How was it possible? Surely there are laws in the United States that protect us from these chemicals. As I quickly learned, we have precious little protection.
Our nation's main law aimed at regulating chemicals used in everyday products is called the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). This law is widely recognized as being flawed, and there have been a series of bills introduced into Congress to reform the antiquated law. This time cover story appeared in September, 1980:

 

This flawed law is one of the reasons the USA is one of the few nations in the world in which asbestos is not banned in many products.1

Why is it so bad?2

We assume the TSCA is testing and regulating chemicals for safety used in industry. It is not:

    • Of the more than 60,000 chemicals in used prior to 1976, most were "grandfathered in"; only 200 were tested for safety and only 5 were restricted.  Today over 80,000 chemicals are routinely used in industry, and the number which have been tested for safety has not materially changed since 1976.  So we cannot know the risks of exposing ourselves to certain chemicals.  The default position is that no information about a chemical = no action.
    • For those of you who don't know, the oil spill in Charleston, West Virginia in early 2014 into the Elk River, which supplied much of Charleston's drinking water, was of "crude MCHM", or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, one of the chemicals that was grandfathered in to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.   That means that nobody knows for sure what that chemical can do to us.
      • Carcinogenic effects? No information available.
      • Mutagenic effects? No information available.
      • Developmental toxicity? No information available.     
  • Lack of information was the reason the local and federal authorities in Charleston were unable  to advise the local population about their drinking water supplies in 2014.  (And by the way, in January, 2014, a federal lawsuit was filed in Charleston, WV, which claims that the manufacturer of MCHM hid "highly toxic and carcinogenic properties" of components of MCHM, hexane and methanol, both of which have been tested and found to cause diseases such as cancer.)

We assume that the TSCA requires manufacturers to demonstrate their chemicals are safe before they are used.  It does not:

The law says the government has to prove actual harm caused by the chemical in question before any controls can be put in place.  The catch-22 is that chemical companies don't have to develop toxicity data or submit it to the EPA for an existing product unless the agency finds out that it will pose a risk to humans or the environment – which is difficult to do if there is no data in the first place.  Lack of evidence of harm is taken as evidence of no harm.

We assume that manufacturers must list all ingredients in a product, so if we have an allergy or reaction to certain chemicals we can check to see if the product is free of those chemicals.  It does not:

TSCA allows chemical manufacturers to keep ingredients in products secret.   Nearly 20% of the 80,000 chemicals in use today are considered "trade secrets".  This makes it impossible for consumers to find out what's actually in a product.  And there is no time limit on the period in which a chemical can be considered a trade secret.

 

These limitations all help to perpetuate the chemical industry's failure to research safer chemical and product design.  

 

 

1EPA: U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos; http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos

2For more information, see the Environmental Defense Fund's website pertaining to the TSCA: http://www.edf.org/health/policy/chemicals-policy-reform