Skip to main content

What’s in your paint, detergent, art supplies, furniture, and textiles? You probably don’t know, since there’s typically no ingredients list on the label. But, even if you wanted to know – you don’t necessarily have the right to know. Even more disturbing, the government agency in charge of regulating the chemicals in these products doesn’t always have the right to know.

According to a new report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “The public has no access to any information about approximately 17,000 of the more than 83,000 chemicals on the master inventory compiled by the EPA and Industry has placed ‘confidential business information’ (CBI) claims on the identity of 13,596 new chemicals produced since 1976 – nearly two-thirds the 20,403 chemicals added to the list in the past 33 years."

“Off the Books: Industry’s Secret Chemicals” the profound gap in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law written over 30 years ago to regulate toxic substances in order to protect health and the environment, that allows chemical manufacturers to keep secrets.

TSCA is generally recognized as the weakest environmental law – largely because it places the burden of proof on the EPA instead of manufacturers. Essentially, a chemical is innocent until proven guilty – which can takes decades to do. Under the secrecy provision outlined in this new report, any company can claim confidentiality and it is up to the EPA to prove within 90 days that transparency would compromise profits. With thousands of new chemicals being introduced annually, and thousands of old ones to keep up with, there’s simply no way for the agency to meet its own regulatory demands.

Chemical secrecy is a glaring flaw in a regulatory system aimed at protecting human health and the environment from toxic chemicals. An example of what secrecy can lead to is described in the report:

In 2005, under pressure from environmental health advocates and the EPA, Great Lakes Chemical phased-out the neurotoxic and persistent brominated fire retardant PentaBDE. At the same time, the EPA expedited the approval of Firemaster 550, a replacement fire retardant made with confidential ingredients.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, EPA's top expert on fire retardant at the time, and now Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, was worried that Firemaster 550ʼs ingredients might present health risks similar to PentaBDE. She complained publicly that itʼs chemical contents were confidential, even to her, the EPAʼs leading scientist on flame retardants.

Industry had good reason to conceal the ingredients in Firemaster 550. Had Birnbaum and other EPA scientists known the identity of the chemicals in Firemaster 550, the product would have come under serious scrutiny within the agency. But with CBI protection, EPA scientists were helpless to do anything.

In 2008, Duke University scientist Heather Stapleton cracked the chemical code for Firemaster 550, finding that it contained a brominated phthalate and brominated benzoate. The brominated phthalate was later detected in high concentrations in Boston- area households and sewage sludge from the Bay Area.

If you think about it, we shouldn’t be too terribly surprised that so much would remain secret from consumers. It’s only been 20 years since the food labeling law was enacted to let us know what ingredients were in the products we were eating every day. Still, it was a battle for consumers to win the right to know what was in their food and it has been a battle trying to get the same transparency with other products.

Regardless of consumer rights, isn’t it simple common sense that the regulatory agency should have a right to know?

The failings of TSCA that have been identified by the Government Accountability Office, Congressional hearings, and independent investigations have always still rested on the assumption that there was a comprehensive public inventory. Someone was keeping track of the most basic information. Clearly, that assumption was wrong.

How many more flaws will have to be pointed out before this archaic law is re-written? The problems have been identified. Now is the time for solutions.

Learn more at Healthy Child Healthy World.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!