Over the past decade, dozens of imports from China and other countries have been recalled because they were laced with lead, cadmium and other clearly hazardous chemicals.
Today, federal and state regulators are focusing on the subtler dangers of other chemicals in common consumer goods. As Congress debates how to reform the 33-year-old federal law on toxic chemicals controls, it’s crucial that the resulting law empower regulators to bar contaminant-laden imported products as well as those made in the U.S. Otherwise, the deck will be stacked against some American manufacturers and in favor of their overseas competitors who ignore concerns about the substances in question.
Take the case of polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), a family of toxic chemicals used since the 1970’s as fire retardants in foam and plastics. Over the past decade, PBDEs have been found in many Americans’ bodies and even in polar bears. Researchers have reported that a single day’s exposure to these chemicals can cause permanent brain damage in laboratory animals.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) grandfathered PBDEs. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), frustrated in its efforts to regulate dangerous PBDEs out of use, has negotiated voluntary phase-out agreements with U.S. manufacturers for all 3 formulations – penta-, octa- and decaBDE. The first two mixtures are no longer manufactured in the U.S. or imported here. The form known as deca- is in a three-year phase-out that began last December.
However, because the law makes no mention of controlling risky chemicals by means of voluntary legal pacts as opposed to regulations, which carry the force of law, EPA appears to have no authority to bar finished products containing PBDEs from being imported into the U.S. These chemicals and products incorporating them are still being made in China and other foreign countries. Furniture imports, for instance, can legally contain these hazardous chemicals.
Another notorious example: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as “C8,” a toxic synthetic used to manufacture Teflon and other non-stick coatings. When overheated, non-stick pans can release fumes containing PFOA and other perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Pollution from factories handling PFOA has proved a major health concern in affected communities. Because of widespread use of Teflon-coated cookware and fabrics, nearly all Americans tested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have measureable PFOA and other PFCs in their bodies.
In 2006, EPA and eight major companies in the industry agreed to eliminate factory emissions and product content of PFOA and related PFCs by 2015. But foreign-made cookware with non-stick coatings and other non-stick products are readily available in American stores. There is no way to know whether these products contain PFOA. And there appears to be little EPA could do, because the PFOA almost certainly comes from foreign companies that have not agreed to the phase-out.
In short, the current situation is dangerous for American consumers and unfair to American companies and workers.
A bill now being drafted by key House leaders Henry Waxman, D-CA, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-IL, consumer protection subcommittee chairman, would clarify EPA’s powers to restrict chemicals in imported finished goods.
This would improve U.S. manufacturers’ competitive position in the global marketplace. In the fierce competition for retail sales, Chinese companies and other foreign manufacturers would no longer enjoy an advantage over U.S. companies that try to do the right thing.
We believe this proposed reform is long overdue. American manufacturers shouldn’t be subject to more constraints than foreign companies. Foreign imports shouldn’t be riskier than U.S.-made products. Consumers want good values, but they also expect American store shelves to be filled with safe goods.