Off the Books: Industry’s Secret Chemicals

Thousands of Chemical Names and Ingredients Kept Under Wraps At EPA

WASHINGTON, DC- Americans are denied crucial information about more than 65 percent of new chemicals approved by the U.S. government since the mid 1970's, including the substances' makeup and what health and safety hazards they might pose.

Why? Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the chemical industry has been allowed to stamp a "trade secret" claim on the identity of two-thirds of all chemicals introduced to the market in the last 27 years, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis of data obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These include chemicals used in numerous consumer and children's products.

The 33-year old law that was supposed to ensure that Americans know what chemicals are in use around them, and what health and safety hazards they might pose, has produced a regulatory black hole, a place where information goes in - but much never comes out.

EWG's analysis also showed that:

  • The public has no access to any information about approximately 17,000 of the more than 83,000 chemicals on the master inventory compiled by the EPA.
  • Industry has placed "confidential business information" (CBI) claims on the identity of 13,596 newchemicals produced since 1976 - nearly two-thirds of the 20,403 chemicals added to the list in the past 33 years.
  • From 1990 to 2005, the number of confidential chemicals more than quadrupled - from 261 to 1,105 -- on the sub-inventory of substances produced or imported in significant amounts (more than 25,000 pounds a year in at least one facility). In July 2009, the EPA released the identity of 530 of these chemicals, lowering the number of moderate- and high-production volume secret chemicals to 575.
  • Secrecy claims directly threaten human health. Under section 8(e) of TSCA, companies must turn over all data showing that a chemical presents "a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment." In the first quarter of 2009, industry concealed the identity of more than half the chemicals for which studies were submitted under 8(e).
  • At least 10 of the 151 high-volume confidential chemicals produced or imported in amounts greater than 300,000 pounds a year are used in products specifically intended for use by children age 14 or younger.

TSCA's failings have been repeatedly documented by the Government Accountability Office, in Congressional hearings and by independent investigations. But it has generally been assumed that at a minimum, the law required an accurate public inventory of chemicals produced or imported in the United States. As this investigation shows, it does not.

Instead we have a de-facto witness protection program for chemicals, made possible by a weak law that allows broad confidential business information (CBI) claims, combined with EPA's historic deference to business assertions of CBI.

"The chemical industry has turned TSCA -- a law once thought to protect people and the environment - into its own witness protection program, where it has safely stashed the very existence of thousands of chemicals behind the doors at EPA," said Richard Wiles, Senior VP for Policy and Communications at EWG. "Mafia informants don't enjoy the level of protection these secret chemicals receive under the federal toxics law," added Wiles.

EPA data compiled in response to an EWG information request show that a large number of these secret chemicals are used every day in consumer products, including artists' supplies, plastic products, fabrics and apparel, furniture and items intended for use by children. But EPA cannot share specific information on these chemicals even within the agency or with state and local officials.

No one except a few select EPA employees has any knowledge of their identity, and even they usually know nothing about their potential hazards to human health or the environment.

"Industry has a stranglehold on every aspect of information needed to implement even the most basic health protections from chemicals in consumer products and our environment," wrote Wiles and David Andrews, authors of the EWG analysis.


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.

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