Chemical Law Is Not Broken, Doesn’t Need To Be ‘Fixed’

Environmental activists and some industry groups seem to agree that the nation’s chemical law is broken.

Their drumbeat calling for “modernization” of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), follows band leader Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. who proposed “repairs” in the form of S. 846—the so-called “Safe Chemicals Act.”

But as the beat grows louder—the underlying premises continue to be wrong.

The Big Greens’ main premise is that TSCA’s risk standard is too weak. Yet TSCA’s risk standard protects consumers from ill-conceived regulations that could harm public health and well-being.

Here’s how it works. 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.”

This standard involves weighing the risks of the chemical against the risks of the regulatory action. That sounds like a good idea. After all doesn’t it make sense to demand that regulations don’t do more harm than good?

Still activists at complain that TSCA’s risk standard “prevented the EPA from restricting asbestos, a known human carcinogen.” They fail to note that a federal court struck the standard down in 1991 because it could have killed people.

The court explained: “EPA failed to study the effect of non-asbestos brakes on automotive safety, despite credible evidence that non-asbestos brakes could increase significantly the number of highway fatalities, and that the EPA failed to evaluate the toxicity of likely brake substitutes…substitute products actually might increase fatalities.”

In fact the risks of the asbestos products currently on the market are very low. EPA attempted to ban chrysotile asbestos fibers. These fibers are enclosed inside products—preventing consumer exposure.

Chrysotile fibers also present relatively low risks to workers exposed to higher levels. Numerous studies on workers exposed to chrysotile asbestos in friction-control industries—such as workers for brake manufacturers and automotive brake repair workers—failed to detect significant cancer risks.

Of course, protective work practices remain important in preventing any dangerous exposure levels.

Amphibole fibers, on the other hand, are a more serious concern because they are long, thin and easily embed in human tissue and persist for a long time. But they were not in the products EPA wanted to regulate.

Nonetheless, Big Green advocates want TSCA reform to allow bans on chrysotile asbestos—never mind how many people might die as a result.

Some industry players join them in making the next faulty premise, which is the claim that TSCA’s data collection mandates are insufficient. Supposedly, EPA could better understand risks if they forced industry to submit reams of data on every chemical in commerce.

But under the current law, EPA has collected data on thousands of “new” chemicals, issuing thousands of rules and consent decrees that regulate uses.

Despite claims to the contrary, EPA also has some very clear options for collecting data on chemicals that have been used for decades in commerce.

And finally, the agency has collected data on thousands of chemicals under voluntary agreements with industry.

The Big Greens would rather have it all: mandating a massive data dump—and forcing industry to reveal confidential business secrets in the process.

This is not only a way to discourage innovation; it’s a waste of time and money. Such data collection efforts should be strategic and thus targeted toward likely risks, which is what TSCA’s existing legislative language requires.

That brings us to yet another wrong-headed idea, the suggestion that a “stronger” law will better protect public health. Human exposure to the trace chemicals TSCA regulates is simply too low to matter.

The best research indicates that most cancers—the main concern about chemicals—result from lifestyle choices, such as overeating, poor dietary choices, and smoking. There is little evidence of any cancers from trace chemicals used in consumer products.

If environmental activists are truly concerned about cancer risks, they should focus on educating consumers about making better choices.

Berkeley scientists Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold underscore the importance of a good diet, for example, by pointing out that the quarter of the population eating the fewest fruits and vegetables had double the cancer incidence than those eating the most.

They also explain: “There is no convincing evidence that synthetic chemical pollutants are important as a cause of human cancer.”

Still the beat goes on. Should it conclude with a “modernized” law, we can be sure that we will have more bureaucracy, less innovation, and a potentially more dangerous world as EPA begins banning valuable products.