In 1976, you could still buy leaded gasoline; you could smoke on an airplane; and you could still drive with an open beer in most states. And, on this day in 1976, President Gerald Ford signed a law that was meant to make sure the chemicals we use are safe. Today, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our main federal chemical law, turns 37-years-old. A lot has changed since 1976, not least of which is our understanding of the health impact of chemicals. We now know that some of the chemicals we’re exposed to every day can cause real problems, ranging from cancer to learning disabilities. Yet we still rely on an ineffective law from the 70s, which has failed to protect us.
Many people think that hazardous chemicals are only found in laboratories and factories. In reality, we are exposed to chemicals on a daily basis through the products we use and the materials that surround us in our homes, schools and workplaces. There are chemicals you take into or put on your body, usually on purpose: prescription drugs, cosmetics or chemicals added to food, like a sugar substitute or colorant. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with ensuring these chemicals are safe. But there are many more chemicals you might not pay as much attention to, like chemicals in bottles and cans under your kitchen sink and in the paint on your walls, the varnish on your desk and the foam in your couch. In fact, there are thousands of such chemicals we all encounter every day.
So here’s the problem: Very few of these chemicals have been reviewed to determine if they’re safe, because the 37-year-old law we still operate under doesn’t require it. TSCA is supposed to regulate the tens of thousands of chemicals like these, but when the law was passed, the chemical industry argued that consumers would not be exposed to potentially toxic chemicals in everyday products, hence they would pose no risk to human health. We now know better. Many hundreds of these chemicals enter our bodies, not only through food and water, but also through fumes, aerosol sprays and household dust. Studies have linked many of these chemicals to health problems, including asthma, autism, infertility and learning disabilities.
Despite the mounting evidence, only a small fraction of the chemicals being produced or used in the United States have ever been required to be tested. TSCA does not give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority it needs to screen chemicals for safety and appropriately regulate the ones found to be unsafe. We’ve had six Presidents since Gerald Ford signed the law in 1976, and control of Congress has switched back and forth numerous times between the parties. In that time, no one found time to fix TSCA. After 37 years, the time has come. Congress should pass a chemical law that will protect our families NOW. We can’t afford to wait for another birthday of this decrepit law to come and go.