Science Washes Hype about “Toxic” Shampoo Down the Drain

Every now and then, government regulators manage to do something reasonable. Last week, the Canadians made a smart move by accepting hard science over hype related to a chemical used in personal care products, such as shampoo and skincare products. Canadian Environmental Ministers wanted to list it as a “toxic substance,” but two years after a scientific review, claims about the chemical’s alleged toxicity are washed away. An industry group representing the chemical reports:

The Board of Review was composed of a panel of three renowned toxicologists appointed by the Canadian Environment Minister.  The panel conducted a comprehensive scientific evaluation to assess the behavior of D5 in the environment. The Board’s report, which was released in October of 2011, concluded that “Siloxane D5 does not pose a danger to the environment or its biological diversity.”  Furthermore, the Board found that “based on the information presented, Siloxane D5 will not pose a danger to the environment or its biological diversity in the future.”

This Canadian debate is of interest here in the United States for a few reasons. For one, some of the more wacky environmental activists have suggested that the chemical and related siloxanes — better known as silicones — present a threat to public health, despite the lack of any evidence. Consumers should gain some assurance that claims from these groups should be dismissed thanks to the Canadian review of Siloxane 5.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also embarked on a review of siloxanes as part of its controversial “chemical action plan” program, which the Obama administration created under the auspices of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Historically, TSCA has not been used in an arbitrary and capricious fashion largely because it has one of the best risk standards written into environmental law, which CEI highlights in a study we released this week. Specifically, the EPA may regulate an existing chemical (EPA has stricter rules for “new” chemicals) when the agency finds that the chemical may pose an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” The EPA explains on its website:

[U]nreasonable risk involves the balancing of the probability that harm will occur and the magnitude and severity of that harm against the effect of a proposed regulatory action on the availability to society of the expected benefits of the chemical substance.

TSCA also demands that EPA’s existing chemical regulations  apply restrictions only “to the extent necessary to protect adequately against such risk using the least burdensome requirements.” EPA must also consider exposure levels, benefits of the product that would be lost because of EPA actions, availability of substitutes, as well as the economic, environmental, and health consequences of their rules.

Despite what green activists claim, these standards offer some important safeguards for consumers. Regulators should not have the power to remove valuable products from the marketplace in an arbitrary matter. They must have good, scientifically valid causes, and their rules should benefit the public — not impose harm.

Unfortunately, reason could soon disappear from TSCA. The Obama administration is looking for loopholes to the law’s reasonable risk standard. Several EPA initiatives place chemicals on “concern” lists or make them subject to “action plans.” EPA can place the chemical on such lists without having to demonstrate much regarding risks or whether any actions are warranted. Yet the mere listing can eventually have market reverberations — causing retailers, manufacturers and other parties to stop using them. For example, EPA’s development of action plans related to chemicals used in vinyl products caused Walmart, Target, and other retailers to pull vinyl shower curtains and other products off their shelves, despite the fact that the likely risk of any problems from the chemical are remote.

The administration’s designation of siloxanes as an item to study under a “chemical action plan” is most perplexing. These are some of the most inert chemicals on the market and certainly EPA would have a very difficult time justifying any regulations based on TSCA’s reasonable risk standard. Perhaps EPA regulators hope that they can collect data on certain chemicals under these “action plans” for use in the future — after Congress passes a TSCA reform law that does away with the reasonable risk standard. In fact, the agency is pushing for legislative reforms that would give it more power to regulate based on less scientific, “precautionary” standards.

Unfortunately, Congress and the EPA are not alone. Many states, particularly California, are also advancing anti-science, anti-reason-based chemical policies. For more details, check out CEI’s TSCA study as well as our study on green chemistry.

Let’s  hope these schemes don’t succeed because if they do, sound science and rational chemical policy may soon go down the drain.

Image credit: The Italian Voice on Flickr.