This week the American Chemical Society is holding a meeting on Green Chemistry -- a subject that holds much promise for the future. Chemicals are in the hot seat this year, as Congress is debating how to reform our disco-era policy -- the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) -- that allows thousands of chemicals to be used in consumer products, despite their known toxicity or the complete absence of information on their safety.
Environmental and public health groups assert that green chemistry will receive a boost if pending legislation passes, prompting innovation and helping American manufacturers meet increasing worldwide consumer demand for safer products. With more and more evidence demonstrating the link between toxic chemicals and serious diseases such as cancer, learning disabilities and reproductive disorders, consumers are ready for a change. Already successful companies such as Staples, Steelcase, Kaiser, Construction Specialties and others have helped improve the safety of chemicals in products they make, sell, and use, by setting a higher bar than the government requires.
The chemical industry, on the other hand, is arguing that the pending legislation to overhaul TSCA will actually stifle innovation in green chemistry. Their powerful lobbying and PR forces are trying to convince Congress that new chemicals should not be required to demonstrate safety before being allowed on the market, lest that pose too great a burden on the industry. The toxicity tests are costly and time-consuming, they say, which will tie up new green chemicals in red tape. We will not only be delaying advances in green chemistry, they argue, but also destroying innovation in the American industry, which gives us an edge over foreign competitors.
But to agree with this argument would require an enormous leap of faith. If history tells us anything, it's that the lack of a strong health and safety policy for chemicals inevitably leads to the proliferation of toxic chemicals in the economy. Our current law "grandfathered in" 62,000 chemicals when it passed in 1976. It required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to meet an enormous legal burden to prove that these chemicals posed an "unreasonable risk" to human health and the environment before action could be taken. Pretty quickly this burden was shown to be insurmountable. While others were wearing leg warmers, enjoying Duran Duran and going to John Hughes' movies, EPA spent the 80's preparing to regulate the most notorious chemical on the list: asbestos. They developed 40,000 pages of evidence to support their proposal, including clear links to serious diseases. Once it was unveiled, asbestos makers sued... and won! The message to EPA was clear, if you couldn't regulate asbestos with this law, you probably couldn't restrict anything else either. EPA stopped trying.
Since then 20,000 new chemicals have entered the market and they have been subjected to only a little more scrutiny. They are not required to meet a clear standard for safety, or even to be backed by significant toxicity studies.
It is likely that any reform which subjects chemicals to an orderly review of their health effects and requires industry to demonstrate safety, rather than EPA to prove harm, will lead to many of these old chemicals, such as lead, mercury, formaldehyde and BPA, to be reduced and in some cases eliminated. That will create demand for replacement chemicals that can survive this scrutiny, including those that would meet the rigorous criteria established for Green Chemistry by the founding scientists of the movement.
The chemical industry is right about at least one thing: they are in the best position to manufacture greener chemicals on a large scale. A representative of one the major chemical companies privately asserted that their budget for Research and Development dwarfed all of the university chemistry R & D programs in the US combined! I don't doubt it, and I want his company to thrive.
But unless our new policy demands that new chemicals demonstrate safety, I fear they may wind up being as toxic as the older ones. We need to make sure that the pending Safe Chemicals Act -- which Congress may act on this summer -- sets standards based on what the latest science tells us is safe, and reward those companies that meet that standard first. I hope the American Chemical Society can debate not whether, but how, to meet this challenge using the vast expertise in American industry.
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