Regulation of Chemicals? What Regulation?

  • Toxic Chemical Body

    Image by Jennifer Daniel /

  • Toxic Chemical Body

This article was published with  Not So Pretty in Pink —on companies marketing toxic makeup to children. For more, visit Utne Reader’s online exclusive resource  guide for alternatives to toxic body care products .

Puberty-inducing teen cosmetics are but one example of chemicals that are changing our bodies daily. Cancer, low sperm counts, diabetes, asthma, and autism are among the human ills attributed to industrial chemicals in common consumer products, writes Nena Baker in The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being (North Point Press, 2008). While Baker makes it clear that manufacturers are far from blameless, she also calls out U.S. lawmakers for letting stand “the notoriously weak and ineffectual Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA] of 1976.”

That law gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority over testing of chemicals and pesticides. At the same time, it hamstrung the agency by mandating that its actions could not “impede unduly or create unnecessary economic barriers to technological innovation.” Existing chemicals—some 62,000 of them—were grandfathered in by the act and “are considered safe until proven guilty,” says Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician, epidemiologist, and former EPA administrator. Tellingly, the EPA hasn’t tried to ban a toxic chemical since 1989, when it went after asbestos.

The TSCA is further rendered toothless by its voluntary and secretive nature: Manufacturers who make new chemicals are responsible for reporting potential problems, giving them an incentive to stay mum, and they can keep anything they want confidential, even the very identity of the chemicals in question.

The result, Baker writes, is a catch-22: “The [EPA] lacks the statutory power to request data on a chemical prior to proving it causes harm. And it can’t make that kind of risk calculation without the data it is seeking.”

For a better way of doing things, the United States might look, as it often does, to Europe. In 2006 the European Union enacted an ambitious chemicals act called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical Substances). REACH, writes Baker, doesn’t distinguish between “old” and “new” chemicals, forces manufacturers to disclose more information, and requires the most hazardous chemicals to undergo a rigorous authorization process.

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