Chemical Safety: An Urgent Need for Science-Based Protections

Published Jul 17, 2015 Updated Oct 3, 2016

Our world is full of chemicals. In fact, if you use the term in its broadest sense, there’s nothing in our world that isn’t full of chemicals.

But when people talk about chemicals, they usually mean chemical substances that have been engineered for commercial or industrial use. Scientific and technological advances over the past century have spurred a huge increase in the prevalence of such chemicals in our lives.

This growth has brought us many benefits, but it has also brought risks. Some chemicals can cause serious health problems or environmental impacts, and the hazards involved in their extraction, processing, and storage can threaten surrounding communities.

We depend on scientists to assess these risks—and on government to protect the public from them.

Unfortunately, public policy in the United States has failed to do this job adequately: chemical regulation has been weak, poorly funded, and often defeated by industry pressure. This failure not only leaves the public at needless risk, it helps fuel “chemophobia,” the tendency to see chemicals as inherently dangerous regardless of evidence of harm.

Chemical risks

People may encounter hazardous chemicals in a variety of ways—as consumers, as workers, or as residents of communities near chemical facilities.

Consumer products

Many common consumer products—including foods, cleaning products, cosmetics, or housewares—contain chemicals with known health risks.

For instance, several chemicals in common use have been tabbed by recent studies as endocrine disruptors. These include bisphenol-A (BPA), used in beverage containers and food packaging; phthalates, found in products ranging from plastic wrap to shampoo; and flame retardants, used in both furniture and consumer electronics. Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals has been associated with increased risk of many illnesses, including diabetes, reproductive and developmental disorders, and breast cancer.

Among the many other chemicals that may pose risks through exposure in consumer products are volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde (furniture, medicines, household cleaners) and heavy metals such as lead (cosmetics).

Chemical exposure on the job

Workers face special risks because they may face much more concentrated and prolonged exposure to hazardous chemicals than consumers typically do. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), chemical exposure kills more than 50,000 US workers each year, and makes another 190,000 ill.

Some examples of chemicals that science has shown to be particularly risky for workers are silica (quartz), used in many construction materials as well as in medicines; spray polyurethane foam, used in the construction industry; and formaldehyde.

Chemical risks to surrounding communities

Living near places where chemicals are extracted, processed, stored, or transported can bring serious health and safety risks.

The problem is not a small one. Around 30,000 documented chemical accidents occur in the United States each year, claiming about 1,000 lives. More than 134 million people in the United States live in the “vulnerability zones” around facilities that deal with hazardous chemicals. These residents are disproportionately likely to be members of African American, Latino, or low-income communities, especially in the “fenceline” areas nearest the facilities.

The EPA requires facilities handling hazardous chemicals to produce a risk management plan (RMP), including accident prevention and emergency response plans and other relevant details. However, RMP requirements have loopholes that compromise their effectiveness, allowing companies to withhold crucial information and to shift responsibility for disaster response onto local communities.

Chemical policy

Although several previous environmental and public health laws (such as the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Pure Food and Drug Act) had addressed chemical risks in some fashion, the first attempt at a comprehensive chemical safety law in the United States was the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976.

Though well intended, TSCA had serious weaknesses. It grandfathered in thousands of chemicals already in common use, such as formaldehyde. And it placed the burden of proof on regulators to show that new chemicals were unsafe, rather than requiring companies to provide evidence of their safety. These weaknesses, combined with inadequate funding, have rendered TSCA largely toothless.

TSCA reform: new powers, old obstacles

As of this writing, Congress is near completion of an update to TSCA that may offer an opportunity for real progress to better protect the public from chemical risks. The EPA needs stronger authority to protect the public, and Congress needs to allocate enough funds to support effective action.

One thing we can be sure of: the chemical industry will do its best to prevent or delay meaningful implementation of TSCA reform. As our 2015 report Bad Chemistry shows, the industry has consistently used the lobbying muscle of its trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), to block regulation of chemical hazards—and to skew international trade agreements in industry-friendly directions.

What we’re doing—and what you can do

UCS is working in multiple ways to ensure that public policy does a better job of protecting everyday people from chemical hazards:

  • TSCA reform and implementation. We’ve been active in the effort to make sure a strong TSCA reform bill is passed—and, just as important, that the updated law is implemented effectively.
  • Protecting against chemical disasters. Working with partners like the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters and the National Environmental Justice Health Alliance, we’ve called on the EPA to revise its RMP regulations to ensure that vital information is made available to the public or to local authorities, and to ensure that the job of emergency planning does not fall between the cracks between operators and communities.
  • Working with community partners. We’re mobilizing experts from the UCS Science Network to partner with fenceline community members to gather data about the chemical risks and impacts they face, to advocate for solutions, and to amplify the voice of the environmental justice movement.
  • Advocating for transparency. We’ve joined the million-plus people who’ve asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose both indirect and direct political activities, so that the ACC and its member companies can be held accountable when they use their influence to block science-based chemical safety reform.

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