Should Manufacturers Disclose Secret Chemical Ingredients?


Image: Flickr, xmatt
Study on Top Secret Chemicals
Parents want to know. Schools want to know. Workers want to know. Nearly everyone wants to know: What dangerous chemicals lurk in products we use? A new study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), shows the extent to which industry keeps their chemical ingredients top secret. And EWG is demanding the industry be forced to tell all. Is that the best solution?TSCA: Toxic Substances Control Act
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is supposed to protect Americans from the dangers of chemicals in products made or sold in the USA. Implemented in 1976, TSCA requires manufacturers to prove the safety of all new chemicals manufactured or sold in the USA. It also requires that EPA play "catch-up" to see if all of the chemicals already being sold might hide "Silent Spring," cancer-causing, or similar dangers.

Like a lot of information submitted to the US Government, the data submitted under TSCA is supposed to be available to the public, either in standard reports or through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. But there is a big loophole: the EPA allows manufacturers to claim the identity of chemicals "trade secret."

Toxic Secrets Control Act?
EWG used their right to ask EPA for information to figure out how much information is being kept secret. They discovered that over 17,000 out of 83,000 chemicals subject to reporting are claimed trade secret. Furthermore, almost two-thirds of the new chemicals registered since the law came into effect are secret. And the practice is growing: the number of confidentiality claims quadrupled from 1990 to 2005. Some of these claims involve chemicals in products specifically intended for use by children under 14 years of age. EWG concludes:

Industry has a stranglehold on every aspect of information needed to implement even the most basic health protections from chemicals in consumer products and our environment. This must be changed. A chemical's identity and all related health and safety information must be made available to the public with no exceptions.

Why Trade Secrets Are Good
Readers of TreeHugger will know that this writer is a strong advocate for right-to-know and for giving people the information they need to take responsibility for their own health and welfare. But the EWG demand came as a shock. EWG did not examine the nuances of the use of trade secret claims. Now more than ever, due to global competition with lower wage countries, manufacturers need to be able to make new advances without giving away the keys to their discoveries.

But where does that leave the consumer? Dependent upon the corporate responsibility of greedy, manufacturing megaliths? Reliant on the pathetic attempts of EPA to run behind industry sweeping up the crumbs? What is the right answer?

No one who is familiar with the results of three decades of TSCA will disagree with EWG's statement that "TSCA is an extraordinarily ineffective law." But the study does not tell the whole story. The trade secrets that industry claims does not keep information secret from the EPA. One of the most important functions that EPA employees perform is to act as guardians of the public health and environment, using their privileged knowledge as a weapon.

The Balance of Toxic Chemicals and Safe Secrets
Furthermore, there is action to improve. EPA created the High Production Volume (HPV) program, in which manufacturers "voluntarily" collect more information on chemicals and make it available, mostly without trade secret protection. Also, major players like Wal-mart are leading a wave of retailers starting a process where a private third-party company collects secret information from their suppliers and then gives the retailer a "green score" to help consumers understand the risks and benefits of the products they choose.

Europe has started down the path with their ground-breaking REACH law, which starts from scratch reviewing all chemicals that are on the market before the end of 2015. Many industry representatives feel this law goes too far and places a burden on industry the will reduce European competitiveness. But many think that the increased pressure to innovate will lead to Europe as a leader in sustainable chemistry just as a sensitized public begins to demand better with their consumer purchase-power votes.

Perhaps EWG has staked out their position to anchor the extreme end of a bargaining process that is overdue. But hopefully an enlightened middle path can be found which will protect competitiveness, reward innovation, and ensure the safety of children, people, and the environment. What do you think is the right path forward? Share your views in the comments.

More on Secret Toxic Chemicals:
EWG Off the Books: Industry's Secret Chemicals
Obama Administration Suspends CHAMP Chemical Assessment Program
REACH for Greener Chemistry
Avoid These 'Dirty Dozen' Toxic Chemicals
No Safe Amount: The Handshake Theory of Chemical Toxicity
Begrudgingly Green CEOs
Walmart As Government: Screening Chemical Product Formulations To Protect Public Health

Tags: Chemicals | Corporate Responsibility | EPA

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