The US Environmental Protection Agency put out the word yesterday (March 15) that people who want to see its public inventory of industrial chemicals will no longer have to shell out their own money to get it. It’s a small but meaningful step on a longer and contentious road to give the public, first responders, workers and business people full access to information about the possible risks of substances that are all around us.
In recent meetings with EPA officials and Congressional aides, Environmental Working Group (EWG) Senior Scientist Dave Andrews, Ph.D., and others have pointed out that it didn’t make sense to force people to pay for information filed with EPA on the 84,000 registered chemicals. That inventory was established so that people who handle industrial chemicals, or live in communities where these synthetics were made or fabricated into other products, like cleaners and cookware, could find out whether accidental releases posed a health threat.
But even though the list was public information, to get it you had to pay $190 for a CD or $360 a year for a subscription to the semi-annual updates.
Now it’s up to EPA and Congress to confront the bigger issue — industry’s overuse of a loophole in the law that allows chemical makers to keep crucial information about many industrial chemicals out of the public eye entirely. In a report last December called “Off the Books: Industry’s Secret Chemicals,” Andrews documented that 17,000 of the substances on the EPA inventory are cloaked under claims of “confidential business information” (CBI).
For those 17,000 chemicals, EPA is not allowed to disclose information as basic as the identity of the product or information about its health hazards. Companies must submit that information to the agency, but EPA cannot even share it with first responders called to accidents or disasters that might expose them to unknown toxic substances. Over the last three decades, industry has stamped secrecy claims on two-thirds of all newly introduced chemicals.
EPA, which until recently rarely challenged industry’s secrecy claims, has announced that it will begin to take a closer look. In particular, it will not allow industry to withhold information indicating that a chemical poses a risk to health or the environment if that chemical is already listed on the public inventory.
That’s progress, too, but it still leaves a gaping hole in the system that’s supposed to shield us from toxic risks. EWG urges EPA to continue its efforts to curb abuse of confidentiality claims and calls on Congress to move quickly to replace the 30-year old Toxic Substances Control Act with an updated and effective Kid Safe Chemicals Act.