If you think most corporations are not worthy of your trust, you're not alone. Recent surveys show that public faith in almost all industries is dropping, with 42 percent of Americans saying they don't trust any companies.
Yet even in this era of corporate dishonesty, the chemical industry stands out for its persistent, outrageous acts of deceit and denial of the science around the health risks from their products. At the upcoming SXSW Eco, I'll be discussing this subject and what we can do to protect our children and families from the chemical industry's toxic products, with actor/activist Evan Handler (who has his own moving story of overcoming illness and learning about the connections between environmental toxins and health to tell).
In 30 B.C., the Roman writer Vitruvius warned of the health dangers from leaded water pipes. Luckily, lead was banned in the U.S. from household uses like pipes and paint -- nearly 2,000 years later. As Gerald Markowitz, author of the book Lead Wars described in our recent podcast, when U.S. regulators tried to stem the health threats from lead paint, the lead industry fought back, with manipulative public relations campaigns and legal efforts that stalled health protections for decades.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is widely used in food packaging, plastic bottles, paper receipts and many other everyday products. A recent report noted the growing scientific consensus that exposure to BPA can cause serious reproductive health problems, especially to women. California listed BPA as a chemical known to cause reproductive health hazards -- but the chemical industry sued and stopped this health protective state action. In the wake of industry's public relations efforts and lawsuits, federal agencies have balked at regulating BPA more tightly -- even as elsewhere around the world, health authorities have banned or restricted uses of BPA, to protect children and families from this toxic chemical.
Flame retardant-chemicals are known to cause and/or are known or suspected to cause decreased fertility, disruption of the bodies' natural hormones, and other serious health problems. Independent and government studies have found that these chemicals in furniture do not provide fire safety benefits. Yet for decades government regulations promoted the use of these toxic, unnecessary chemicals in virtually all of our furniture and in many baby and children's products. When health and consumer advocates pushed for stronger protections, the chemical industry allied with Big Tobacco to launch deceptive public relations campaigns and delay regulations. In 2012, when California finally changed its outdated flammability rule so it no longer promoted toxic flame retardants, the largest maker of flame retardant chemicals sued the state to overturn the safer, health protective rule.
But the tide is shifting, as Americans are growing more skeptical of industry's insistence that their chemicals should be considered safe until our children start getting sick. For example, our work at CEH led to the first-ever federal ban on lead in all children's products, resulting in safer toys, baby products, and hundreds of other children's products. On BPA, several states have adopted bans on using the chemical in certain children's products, and FDA has disallowed BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. The flame retardants industry is also on the run: A California judge recently upheld the state's new flammability rules, and California has adopted new rules requiring labels so consumers know when furniture contains (or does not contain) toxic flame retardants. In response to the changes, dozens of furniture and baby products companies have announced they are eliminating their use of flame retardant chemicals, making fire-safe products that no longer pose health hazards to our children and families.
These kinds of health-protective changes were won with persistence, patience, and most importantly a groundswell of public pressure that influenced major companies, policy makers and others. All of us together can continue to bring change to corporate America, and perhaps one day chemical companies will no longer be on the list of least trusted businesses.