Last week, I was about to press ‘save’ on a how-toxic-are-dryer-sheets article, when I realized, “This article is lame.” It was 9:45 in the morning, about 15 minutes before my deadline. I was stressing because I knew that I needed to dive in deeper into the federal law regulating chemicals that’s in play in Congress, but I was out of time.
In our Beneath the Surface series, we’ve been examining the prevalence of synthetic chemicals in everyday products and the consequences of their use to our health and environment. We’ve covered nonstick cookware, flame retardants, phthalates, drinking water, and even nail polish.
What I realized at 9:45 a.m. is that each Beneath the Surface article is the same sad story: Consumer manufacturer X makes oodles of cash on “fill in the blank” (f.i.b). Consumers falsely assume f.i.b. has been tested for safety. Years later, toxins released from f.i.b. make people sick. Independent researchers start the agonizing process of verifying f.i.b.’s negative health impact in an uncontrolled human experiment. There are 86,000 synthetic chemicals in use today; 200 have been reviewed, five have been pulled. Let those numbers sink in for a bit.
The reason for this sad story comes down to one critical, poorly-named, and pointless law – the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), commonly called “tosska.”
“This is really weird.”
At 9:45 a.m., I looked down and noticed that I had written “11:30 Sarbanes and MCAF?” on my calendar. This entry would make for a wild experience that in the end saved my lame dryer sheet article and that I hope, gives readers an understanding how TSCA and dryer sheets are linked.
Congressman John Sarbanes represents Maryland’s 3rd district. Elected in 2006, he’s also my Congressman, and he’s environmentally-focused. MCAF is shorthand for Moms Clean Air Force, an amazing non-profit of 600,000 parents demanding cleaner air quality for kids and climate change solutions. MCAF educates elected officials about kids’ needs for healthy environments. Trisha Sheehan is MCAF’s Deputy Field Director, and I support her team any way I can. I had completely forgotten that she invited me at the last minute to meet with Congressman Sarbanes – another snow day does that to your brain. I headed to join Trisha and Super-MCAF-mom Maranda to meet with our Congressman. That doesn’t happen every day, so I bailed on the dryer sheet article.
What I didn’t know is that Moms Clean Air Force wanted to talk with Sarbanes about toxic chemical reform. Why? Representative Sarbanes sits on the Committee on Energy and Commerce. This powerful committee voted that an updated TSCA law be considered for a full vote. Only 25 percent of bills leave committee.
As I’m sitting down to what became a productive and friendly meeting with Congressman Sarbanes and some of his staff, I’m thinking, “What just happened? Two hours ago I was stressing about researching TSCA’s progress. Now I’m sitting with a key elected official who may actually get this law fixed!”
TSCA’s result: $800 billion market that’s unregulated and untested
Though TSCA may seem wonky, it’s important to understand the law. Even if an updated TSCA is signed into law this year, our country is so far behind the chemical eight ball that the onus is on you to limit your toxic chemical exposure. Especially if you’re pregnant, or hoping to become a parent soon.
Though the name Toxic Substance Control Act implies control and regulation, the law is anything but. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can only request chemical testing after a chemical has been linked harm. That means that chemicals are launched into the marketplace without testing. Making matters worse, the 62,000 synthetic chemicals in use before 1976 were grandfathered and deemed safe. Without getting too detailed and losing you, the law has so many holes that the EPA couldn’t even ban asbestos in 1991.
Congressman Sarbanes said it best during our meeting: “Most Americans would agree that one role of our government is to protect citizens from harm, especially when it comes to chemical exposure. I think most would agree that TSCA needs to be improved.”
Tale of Two Bills in One City
Before Senator Frank Lautenberg’s death in 2013, the Senate’s chemical reform bill was his top priority and passion. The Senate’s TSCA bill has been renamed in his honor. The Senate’s bill was a rare effort by the bipartisan team of Senators David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to work the politics on both sides of the aisle, and also to work with the chemical industry. The influence of the industry is massive with a reported $170 million in chemical reform lobbying. The Senate’s Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act bill passed in December 2015. The House’s TSCA Modernization 2015 bill overwhelmingly passed in June 2015.
Let’s recap. In this partisan political process dominated by insane industry spending, a TSCA reform bill was approved in both the House and Senate. It’s taken 40 years. On some level that is remarkable.
In short, both bills would allow the EPA to place restrictions on harmful chemicals that negatively impact human health. The catch-22 that forced the EPA to prove a chemical caused harm has been eliminated. Both bills would also allow for more public reporting on chemical safety. Given the bill’s bipartisan nature, there is a lot of grumbling about both bills. For a good House versus Senate comparison, and a detailed read, check out Scientific American’s synopsis.
Yeah or Nay?
Congressman Sarbanes had good news about the likelihood of TSCA reform passage, “The motivation is there to get significant chemical reform passed. It’s in everyone’s interest to get some version passed before any potential changes in the makeup of the Congress in this election year. TSCA reform may be one of the few issues we can get done this term.” Congressman Sarbanes also shared that the two bill versions most likely won’t be formally conferenced, but will become one bill by way of back and forth trading between the House and Senate. Good or bad? We shall see.
With some political will and plenty of electoral feedback (consider contacting your elected officials), toxic chemical reform may actually happen. Yet it’s obvious that with the mind-boggling volume of chemicals to be processed — the EPA already has a list of 90 chemicals that it wants to examine — it’s going to be years before any meaningful regulation will be accomplished. It’s up to you to educate yourself and be aware of what chemicals to avoid. The box below lists the health impact from toxic chemical exposure reported by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics.
Excellent resources are also available to become more familiar with the side effects of toxic chemicals. A consumer-friendly option is the Environmental Working Group’s support for buying consumer products, food items, and more. Another smart resource is Green Science Policy Institute’s newsletter covering many consumer products and the latest research.
About those dryer sheets. They’re loaded with chemicals, namely phthalates which are known endocrine disruptors. They mess with adults and even worse, kids’ hormone systems. Choose the eco-friendly options that use natural oils. Better yet, pour 1/4 cup of white vinegar into your washer to soften clothes. We’ll cover dryer sheets next.