Chemicals in our lives: Industry self-policing doesn’t work

Topic: Environmental Protection Agency, Food & Drug Administration, Free Agency, National Institutes of Health
By Marci Greenstein | 03. August 2010
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Here’s why industry self-policing doesn’t work when it comes to dangerous chemicals. Last month The Environmental Working Group found that those shiny grocery and gas station receipts contain high levels of the chemical, bisphenol A (“BPA”), which is absorbed into our skin.  The Food and Drug Administration is already considering whether to regulate BPA found in plastic food containers – including baby bottles – but only after a public outcry. Studies by the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health that raised concerns about “the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children” prompted the FDA to consider the health effects of BPA, according to agency’s website.

In June, Kellogg recalled 28 million boxes of cereal because customers complained of an odd smell and taste that made some sick.  The culprit was a high level of another chemical used in food packaging, 2-methylnaphthalene, another chemical that the FDA hadn’t tested before it was widely used.

As we’ve discussed on this blog, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 exempted thousands of chemicals from regulation and established a self-policing system that doesn’t work.

The problem, Lyndsey Layton points out in the Washington Post, is that neither agency charged with protecting us from dangerous chemicals in the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency or the FDA,  has authority to test chemicals before they hit the market, as in the case of  2-methylnaphthalene:

“Federal regulators, who are charged with ensuring the safety of food and consumer products, are in the dark about the suspected chemical, 2-methylnaphthalene. The Food and Drug Administration has no scientific data on its impact on human health. The Environmental Protection Agency also lacks basic health and safety data for 2-methylnaphthalene — even though the EPA has been seeking that information from the chemical industry for 16 years.

The cereal recall hints at a larger issue: huge gaps in the government’s knowledge about chemicals in everyday consumer products, from furniture to clothing to children’s products. Under current laws, the government has little or no information about the health risks posed by most of the 80,000 chemicals on the U.S. market today.”

There is no incentive to voluntarily alert regulators to a potential problem when a chemical is already in the market.  There are only perverse incentives to withhold information, which is what the food packaging industry seems to be doing.  That’s why Congress must step in and step up its enforcement of dangerous chemicals.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, testified in favor of the “Toxic Chemicals Safety Act,” H.R. 5820, last week, because the bill, which would reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, “would squarely place the burden of proof on industry to show that its products are safe for public health and vulnerable populations.”

That’s the kind of smarter government people are clamoring for.

One Response to “Chemicals in our lives: Industry self-policing doesn’t work”

  1. Anonymous:

    The potential for TSCA reform is quite exciting, but it should be done in a way that doesn’t sacrifice millions of animals (for toxicity testing) in the name of better protection for human health and the environment. The revised bill needs to mandate and create market incentives to use nonanimal methods and tests.

    I agree that we should use the latest science to assess chemicals. Instead of poisoning animals and attempting to apply that data to humans — which hasn’t worked out so far — we need to make sure a reformed TSCA relies on modern human cell and computer-based methods that provide more accurate data on how a chemical acts on cells and what the impact on human health may be.

    comment at 04. August 2010

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