The American Chemistry Council (ACC) may not be a household name, but its influence on chemical policies has affected millions of Americans. Many chemicals in your household are there because ACC lobbying and advertising has prevented or delayed federal regulation of them.
Of course not all chemicals found in consumer products are dangerous, and "chemophobia" needs to be tempered with science. But there is plenty of evidence that many common chemicals do pose significant health risks to consumers and workers, and we need more effective regulation to address those risks.
The ACC has too often worked to obstruct such regulation, following a pattern modeled by the tobacco industry: deny the science, bring in its own experts to counter the evidence, launch misleading advertising campaigns, and pressure decision makers to abandon restrictions on the chemical's use.
Photo: Roy Luck/Flickr
A major lobbying force
Founded in 1872 as the Manufacturing Chemists' Association, the ACC today boasts an annual budget of more than $100 million. Its board members include chemical and petrochemical industry heavyweights such as Dow, DuPont, Marathon Petroleum, and ExxonMobil. In 2013-14, the ACC spent $23 million on federal lobbying, and it is active in state-level lobbying, both directly and through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
The ACC also has a sizable budget for political contributions to members of Congress. Several members sitting on key committees overseeing chemical policy have received sizable donations from the ACC and its member companies in recent years. And the proverbial "revolving door" between government and industry has been spinning hard for the ACC and its member companies: in the 2013-14 election cycle, nearly 70 percent of ACC's registered federal lobbyists had previously held jobs in Congress or in the executive branch.
Pushing against chemical safety reform
ACC influence has been a factor in several recent chemical policy battles:
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA, pronounced "Tosca"), though well intentioned, has been remarkably ineffective. In four decades, the EPA has completed reviews and issued bans or restrictions on just nine of the 84,000 chemicals currently registered for commercial use in the U.S.
As a result, many chemicals long known to pose serious health risks, such as formaldehyde and asbestos, are not adequately regulated at the federal level. To fill this gap, many states have issued regulations of their own.
As of our report's release in July 2015, two bills addressing TSCA reform were being considered by Congress. The ACC has endorsed and lobbied for these bills, both of which would pre-empt state regulations, though the House version would give states more freedom to regulate before EPA takes action.
Whatever TSCA reform bill does pass, chemical regulation is still likely to be a slow process: under current proposals, it would take the EPA 50 years or more to assess even 1,000 of the most toxic chemicals in commerce.
Safety at chemical manufacturing facilities
In recent decades there have been about 30,000 documented chemical facility accidents per year, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths. Recent catastrophes such as the plant explosion in West, Texas or the spill at Elk River in West Virginia have demonstrated how devastating such accidents can be for unprepared communities.
Despite the seriousness of this problem, the ACC has worked to limit regulatory oversight of chemical plant safety. As a result, companies are not required to implement technologies that can reduce risk. And chemical facilities can foist responsibility for emergency response onto local communities without ensuring that local authorities have the information or resources they need to respond to a disaster. Compounding the problem, access to information about risks at specific chemical facilities is tightly restricted—and the industry, citing security concerns, has lobbied to keep it that way.
The aftermath of the chemical plant explosion in West, Texas in 2013. Photo: shane.torgerson/Wikimedia Commons
The ACC hasn't confined its lobbying efforts to domestic chemical policy. It has also worked to influence the outcome of international trade negotiations such as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Parternship (TTIP) agreement.
For instance, ACC has joined other industry groups in targeting EU regulation of pesticides containing endocrine disruptors (EDCs), which have been shown to cause a variety of health problems. So far, this effort is paying off: in May 2015, the EU announced that it would delay implementation of a ban on 31 pesticides containing EDCs. A leaked document obtained by the Center for International Environmental Law reveals that this is part of a larger strategy to slow regulatory developments at all levels.
How ACC undermines chemical safety science: five examples
Here are some common hazardous chemicals that the ACC has helped to keep unregulated or under-regulated:
- What it is: A synthetic compound used as an additive in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. BPA is commonly found in many products, including beverage containers, food packaging, and compact discs.
- Health effects: BPA is an endocrine disrupter that mimics estrogen. It is a reproductive, developmental, and systemic toxicant, especially harmful to children. Animal studies suggest that BPA exposure could lead to reproductive disorders, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- Regulatory status: Largely unregulated in the US, but banned or limited in many other countries, including the European Union and Canada.
- ACC's role: The ACC has lobbied against legislation to regulate BPA and has launched a PR campaign featuring the slogan "Listen to the Science." The campaign's website refers to several flawed studies and uses misleading quotations to lend seeming scientific authority to the group's own pronouncements.
- What they are: A group of chemicals added to furniture, clothing, electronics, and building materials in order to meet flammability standards. (Recent evidence suggests that flame retardants may not in fact be very effective in delaying the spread of fire.)
- Health effects: Studies have linked flame retardant exposure to lower IQ in children, early puberty in girls, endocrine disruption, birth defects, and cancer.
- Regulatory status: No federal rule governs the use of flame retardants; strict state regulations, especially in California, have had some impact on the industry.
- ACC's role: The ACC has responded to California's strong regulation push with a misleading website, relentless lobbying, "astroturf" activism, and industry-sponsored studies, oe of which was published without a required conflict-of-interest disclaimer and has been strongly criticized by leading fire scientists.
- What it is: A colorless, flammable organic compound used in building materials, medicinal and personal care products, and furnishings.
- Health effects: Formaldehyde's status as a human carcinogen has been confirmed by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (2004) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011). In addition to the long-term cancer risk, short-term formaldehyde exposure causes nausea, headache, and eye, ear, nose, throat and skin irritation.
- Regulatory status: Formaldehyde was one of 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in when the TSCA was first passed in 1976, so testing to establish its safety has never been required, even as evidence of its carcinogenic effects has continued to accumulate.
- ACC's role: As with BPA and flame retardants, the ACC has posted a website with misleading information about formaldehyde's health impacts. ACC lobbying has won a five-year delay in EPA implementation of 2010 legislation setting limits on formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.
- What it is: Silica (also known as quartz or silicon dioxide) is a very common mineral, used in a variety of building materials such as concrete, bricks, and glass.
- Health effects: Silica dust is created when cutting, grinding, drilling, or mining materials containing silica. When this dust is inhaled, it can cause silicosis, a progressive, irreversible, sometimes fatal lung disease.
- Regulatory status: Worker exposure is regulated by OSHA, which defines Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for silica dust. However, current silica PELs are more than 40 years old, and in recent years OSHA has proposed updating the standards to better protect workers.
- ACC's role: In 2013, a group of OSHA opponents, including the ACC, contributed $151,266 to a group of 16 senators—who three months later submitted a letter to OSHA requesting an extension of the hearing process. As of 2015, the silica rule is still tied up in the rule-making process.
Spray polyurethane foam
- What it is: A building insulation material that can contain harmful chemicals, including diisocyanates.
- Health effects: Diisocyanates are respiratory, skin, and mucus membrane toxicants that can cause asthma or trigger severe asthma attacks in sensitive populations.
- Regulatory status: As part of its Green Chemistry Initiative, California has added SPF products to a list of priority products that companies are encouraged to avoid in favor of safer alternatives.
- ACC's role: The ACC has argued publicly against the inclusion of SPFs on the priority products list, despite scientific evidence of their harmful effects.
Our chemical policies should protect the public, not the chemical industry's profits. The chemical industry and its trade association should be held accountable for their work to influence decision makers and undermine science. The public has the right to know both about the chemicals in the products around us and about industry efforts to influence elected officials and regulators.
Chemical policies should protect the public
- Congress should pass legislation to strengthen TSCA so that more chemicals are reviewed and regulated.
- The United States should reject any international trade agreement that compromises science-based public health and safety protections concerning chemicals.
- The EPA should revise the Risk Management Program (RMP) to prioritize disaster preparedness, prevention, transparency, access to information, and overall industry accountability. Specifically, the agency should
- fully utilize web tools and social media to ensure timely, accessible, and public access to RMP information;
- require chemical facilities to evaluate, document, and use safer chemicals and processes wherever possible;
- require chemical companies to take greater responsibility for accident response, rather than shifting costs to local governments;
- require comprehensive reporting and investigation of all incidents.
The political activities of the ACC and its members need to be more transparent
- The Securities and Exchange Commission should issue a rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose both their direct and indirect political activities. 1.2 million people have already signed a petition asking the SEC to do this.
- Congress should approve legislation, such as the DISCLOSE Act, enhancing disclosure of indirect political contributions.
- Investors and their representatives should pressures companies to disclose all direct and indirect political spending, disclose whether they agree with the scientific and policy positions of their trade and business associations, and influence the scientific and policy positions of their trade groups, or leave groups whose positions do not align with the company's.
- Companies should insist that their associations accept the best available science on chemicals and their impacts and adopt policy positions that reflect this acceptance; where their position differs from their trade group's, they should publicly state such differences, attempt the influence the trade group's position from the inside, or leave the group if differences are irreconcilable.
- Consumers should hold their congressional leaders and companies accountable by demanding access to information on the effects of chemicals they may be exposed to; where there is strong evidence that chemicals in commercial use have harmful health effects, they should pressure companies to shift to safer ones.