But we’re not.
Here’s the story. When a chemical manufacturer finds out that one of its products “presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment,” the company is required under federal law to give that information immediately to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, in turn, makes it public – sort of. Companies file these reports regularly, and they like to claim that ALL their health and safety studies pointing to chemical hazards are publicly available.
Except that (are you sitting down?) until now, companies have routinely been allowed to keep secret the actual identity of the dangerous chemical. The only exception: a handful EPA officials get to know the dangerous substance’s name. This big fat loophole has been drilled, not surprisingly, under the rubric of “confidential business information.” Or “CBI.”
In other words, you could be staring at a study showing that a chemical has very nasty effects, but you’d be completely blocked from finding out what that chemical is. You’d be allowed to find out only the class of chemicals to which the mystery stuff belongs. That makes the information pretty useless.
And here’s the best, or worst, part. EPA has allowed companies to keep the name of the harmful chemical secret even if its name and chemical identity are already public information — listed on EPA’s public inventory of some 65,000 registered chemicals. And no one, no one, has been checking to see if industry efforts to cloak its health and safety data under the veil of CBI involves chemicals on the public list. (Don’t forget that there are about 17,000 other chemicals whose identity is kept completely secret under the hopelessly inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act, which is often known by its acronym, TSCA, pronounced “tosca.”)
EPA and the chemical companies have been doing business this way for years, but the agency announced on Thursday (Jan. 21) that that’s about to change. It issued a public notice that, starting immediately, it plans to check all CBI claims attached to the “substantial risk” notices and to reject the secrecy claims when the chemical is on the public inventory.
“It’s about time,” said Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy and communications at Environmental Working Group, which recently issued a report on industry’s blatant misuse of “CBI” to keep crucial information about potentially harmful chemicals from the public. “It’s outrageous that industry has been able to deliberately hide the information that lets people know which of the chemicals they’re exposed are dangerous.”
EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, who researched companies’ use of CBI claims to eviscerate the law’s disclosure requirements, noted that in the first nine months of 2009, half of industry’s risk notices to EPA were filed under CBI claims that kept the identity of the chemical hidden from the public. “It’s incredible that we’ve had a government oversight program that doesn’t even cross-check if a chemical suspected of presenting a significant risk should be publicly named,” Andrews said. “It is dangerous for everyone. Reforms that lead to greater transparency are welcome, but this recent EPA action is a baby step, and we need to move by leaps and bounds to curb the overuse of confidentiality.”