Americans have no way to learn crucial information about more than 65 percent of new chemicals approved by the U.S. government since 1977, including the substances’ makeup and what health and safety hazards they might pose. Those “details” are being kept secret under federal policies that allow industry to claim that the chemicals’ very existence is a trade secret, the Environmental Working Group has learned.
This cloak of secrecy applies even to chemicals that industry identifies as presenting “a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.” Under the law, companies must tell EPA anytime they find such a risk. EWG has learned, however, that in the first quarter of this year, industry used confidentiality claims to conceal the identity of more than half the chemicals it reported to Environmental Protection Agency under this requirement.
Since the EPA began keeping an inventory of known chemicals under the weak Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the number of agents declared to be “confidential” has ballooned to nearly 17,000, according to the information the agency provided.
Among these secret chemicals are many that are heavily used in American commerce. EPA’s latest list of these high quantity chemicals, the ones that Americans are most likely to encounter, does not include nearly 600 that are being kept under wraps as “confidential business information,” EWG reported.
These 575 substances include 10 that are used in products specifically marketed for use by children 14 and younger, EPA officials said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by EWG Senior Scientist Dave Andrews, Ph.D. EPA also reported that 141 of the chemicals on the secret list were being produced in amounts of more than 1 million pounds a year, as of 2005, the latest period for which figures are available.
Also among the 575 secret chemicals on the most-widely-used list are substances found in everyday products such as soaps and detergents, artists’ supplies, textiles and clothing, EPA documents show.
EWG’s revelations underscore the major failings of the three-decade old Toxic Substances Control Act as well as EPA’s ineffective efforts to get industry to disclose voluntarily the identity of widely-used chemicals, their potential health hazards and where they are produced.
Said Richard Wiles, EWG’s senior vice president for policy and communications:
It’s just outrageous that the one thing that this largely ineffective law is good at is keeping information about potentially dangerous chemicals out of the hands of the public and even regulators. It underscores how important it is that this Congress pass a thoroughgoing reform bill as soon as possible.
Lynn R. Goldman, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said:
Communities near manufacturing and disposal sites and people who use products containing these chemicals may be suffering adverse impacts, and not even their local and state public health agencies would know that these chemicals even exist.
“The agency is to be congratulated for starting to disclose the identities of these chemicals,” Goldman, a former Assistant Administrator for Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances at EPA, added, “but the public needs to know about the existence of all of them. Further, Congress needs to change the law to tighten up the use of confidentiality claims to make it impossible for industry to hide the existence of chemicals.”
The presence of these secret chemicals in American communities may represent a significant threat to national and homeland security. In October, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent to the House floor the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009, H.R. 2868 , a measure aimed at minimizing the consequences of attacks on sites that make and handle hazardous substances. Yet as long as chemical and manufacturing companies are allowed to make and store unknown chemicals, firefighters and other first responders called to the scene of an attack or accident face unnecessary risks from exposure to these mystery substances.
Delays in determining the precise nature of chemical emissions during emergencies could also place at risk nearby residents and medical personnel called upon to treat them.
According to a June 2006 report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified more than 3,400 chemical facilities “that, if attacked, could pose the greatest hazard to human life and health.” It is highly doubtful that DHS officials have the capacity to look beyond explosive or acutely poisonous substances and consider the implications of attacks that release chemicals whose properties are kept hidden from the medical and scientific community.
Until July, when EPA disclosed the names of 530 other chemicals that had previously been cloaked by industry’s trade secret claims, there were more than 1,100 publicly unidentified chemicals in the registry of medium- and high-volume production agents.
EWG’s Andrews noted that the July release of information about the 530 previously secret chemicals was largely the result of “technicalities” – rather than a significant policy shift. Among them were some chemicals designated as confidential by some manufacturers but not by others making the identical product.
“What it shows is the overuse and unnecessary use of trade secret claims to prevent people from finding out about new synthetics that could turn out to be toxic,” said Andrews. “There’s a very low bar for industry to reach. And very infrequently are they ever challenged.”
EPA has acknowledged that it rarely challenges industry’s confidentiality claims and that its chemical inventory doesn’t get the regular updating it should, Andrews said.
EPA currently updates its public list of medium- and high-volume industrial chemicals only every five years, identifying the agents used or imported over a single 12-month period, Andrews said. This infrequent data collection produces an incomplete picture of the chemicals industry is using.
“New chemicals are synthesized and old ones replaced at a rapid rate,” Andrews said, “so by the time EPA collects and makes public the information, the lists are out of date and chemicals for which we have little health and safety information are replaced with new ones about which we know even less, or nothing at all.”
“With the number of secret chemicals now constituting 20 percent of the total TSCA inventory of more than 83,000 agents — and nearly 10 percent of the most widely used chemicals — it’s time for change,” Andrews said.
Last fall, EWG organized and co-hosted an unprecedented conference that brought together industry, academics and environmental advocates to discuss reform of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, a meeting that produced a surprising degree of consensus on the principles that should underlie the accelerating effort to update the law.