When I first started learning about harmful chemicals in products, I wanted to know who was responsible for protecting us from them. I noticed a lot of campaigns working to get companies to take chemicals out of consumer products, and myriad efforts aimed at getting the government to regulate single chemicals, like BPA or formaldehyde.
Wasn’t there a government agency that oversaw environmental health pollution in this country? Turns out there are lots, and that’s a big part of the issue. I wished for something sensible that would simply ban ingredients and materials linked to cancer, reproductive harm, learning disabilities, allergies, and other chronic diseases—all at once. But that’s not the way our system is set up.
Instead we have many agencies with control over certain areas. Once a law is passed by Congress, the appropriate federal agency is tasked with implementing it. Because US has separate laws that regulate chemicals in food, drinking water, cosmetics, cleaning products, toys, etc., different agencies regulate each of those categories. But the rulings from one agency don’t carry over to another. It results in varied and inconsistent rulings, sometimes even for the same chemicals.
What this results in is that we have to attack harmful substances/chemicals, one by one, and through various agencies and avenues. This “whack-a-mole” approach is a direct result of the complex government regulatory systems that make it nearly impossible to call for an umbrella fix to the problem of toxic chemicals in the things we use every single day.
But frankly, many of the laws around chemicals in products are broken, outdated, or inadequate, allowing for loopholes that result in lack of chemical testing, ingredient disclosure, or capacity for an agency to recall a toxic product in some cases – resulting in products containing ingredients of potential harm on shelves without any warning to consumers.
Still confused? I know, it’s a lot, and you can feel as if you need a PhD to keep it all straight.
Which is why I caught up with Rachel Shaffer, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington who’s researching air pollution and its links to dementia, and consults with national NGOs like Environmental Defense Fund and Moms Clean Air Force. She recently published this informative infographic on what each agency does as part of her research.
It’s a little daunting, but we’re breaking it down to the basics you’ll want to know to understand how to protect yourself and your family.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Regulates: Chemical substances and/or mixtures (except for food, drugs, and cosmetics). This includes chemicals found in the environment, including drinking water, as well as pesticides, cleaning products, furniture like pressed wood products, and antimicrobial textiles like anti-odor clothing .
One example of why it’s broken: EPA implements the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). When it was passed in 1976, TSCA grandfathered in as “safe” all 62,000+ chemicals that were already in use on the marketplaces without requiring any testing. Now there are more than 80,000 chemicals in use, but TSCA made it so burdensome for EPA to review chemicals for safety that the agency has only put a few hundred through the process. And it’s only banned nine chemicals for use. You read that right: EPA has only ever banned nine chemicals for use in products.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
One example of why it’s broken: In relation to cosmetics and personal care, with the exception of a few chemicals that are restricted for use in these products, FDA doesn’t require companies to conduct pre-market safety testing of chemicals or products. The agency also doesn’t review or approve these products before they’re sold to the public. What’s worse, The FDA doesn’t even have the authority to require a mandatory recall of a toxic product should it be put on the market. The FDA can only request that the company take the problematic product off the market.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
Regulates: Chemicals in consumer products, including clothing textiles; vinyl plastic film; carpets and rugs; children’s sleepwear, mattresses and mattress pads; electrically operated toys; cribs; rattles; pacifiers; bicycles; and children’s bunk beds.
One example of why it’s broken: According to a report from The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, because current laws don’t require consumer product and toy manufacturers to test products for most chemical hazards, CPSC must rely mostly on voluntary consumer product standards developed by industry groups. The agency also has limited capacity for ensuring compliance with those voluntary standards developed by industry.
This breakdown of these three core agencies that impact the things you use on a daily basis exemplifies why so many nonprofits have been created to help push for better, smarter legislation that will help move us toward more protective, stringent and wide-reaching laws.
To learn more about how to protect yourself from harmful chemicals in everyday products, read this post.