Surprise! Almost None of Your Household Chemicals Have Been Tested for Safety

The New York Times featured a fairly horrifying report on Saturday about the supposedly rigorous testing household chemicals have to undergo before they’re deemed safe for public consumption, revealing that the testing isn’t actually all that rigorous. Even as we dally on the Internet, our homes could be stocked full of shampoos and detergents so toxic that they could be slowly turning us into the chrome-skinned zombie people from The Omega Man. Or just killing us slightly quicker than the stately march of time otherwise would.

The Times chronicles the little-known “catch-22” that hamstrings the E.P.A. from properly evaluating the risks of common household chemicals:

Regulators, doctors, environmentalists and the chemical industry agree that the country’s main chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, needs fixing. It is the only major environmental statute whose core provisions have not been reauthorized or substantively updated since its adoption in the 1970s. They do not agree, however, on who should have to prove that a chemical is safe.
Currently this burden rests almost entirely on the federal government. Companies have to alert the Environmental Protection Agency before manufacturing or importing new chemicals. But then it is the E.P.A.’s job to review academic or industry data, or use computer modeling, to determine whether a new chemical poses risks. Companies are not required to provide any safety data when they notify the agency about a new chemical, and they rarely do it voluntarily, although the E.P.A. can later request data if it can show there is a potential risk. If the E.P.A. does not take steps to block the new chemical within 90 days or suspend review until a company provides any requested data, the chemical is by default given a green light.

That’s right, ingenuous American citizens! The Environmental Protection Agency is just as flaccid and ineffective as The Simpsons would have us to believe. In other words, explains Dr. Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, the E.P.A. “can’t even require testing to determine whether a risk exists without first showing a risk is likely,” which seems almost impossible. Hence, our homes are teeming with chemicals that would make even the most innocent bubble bath turn into a scene from Cabin Fever.

The pressure for lawmakers to bolster the E.P.A.’s toxin-checking protocol is ratcheting up, in part because scientists are starting to realize that we’ve surrounded ourselves with dangerous chemicals, creating the sort of science fiction scenario identified in the Times’ report:

Part of the growing pressure to update federal rules on chemical safety comes from advances in the science of biomonitoring, which tells us more about the chemicals to which we are exposed daily, like the bisphenol A (BPA) in can linings and hard plastics, the flame retardants in couches, the stain-resistant coatings on textiles and the nonylphenols in detergents, shampoos and paints. Hazardous chemicals have become so ubiquitous that scientists now talk about babies being born pre-polluted, sometimes with hundreds of synthetic chemicals showing up in their blood.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D., NY) and Frank Lautenberg (D., NJ) are leading the charge to subject chemical production to the same regulatory scrutiny pharmaceutical or pesticide production. Last week, they introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013, which would put the onus of proving a chemical’s safety squarely on the shoulders of the chemical industry.

Though it probably goes without saying, the bill has been applauded by environmentalists and criticized by the chemical industry. Sen. David Vitter (R. LA), who gets off on paying women to stuff his lumpy old body into a diaper (true story), has answered the helpless cries of America’s chemical titans and is expected to introduce a competing bill sometime soon. Spoiler alert: it puts less of a burden on the chemical industry to ensure that the products it makes won’t make children’s eyes glow in the dark.

Think Those Chemicals Have Been Tested? [NY Times]

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