Undercover Agents

by Alastair Bland, March 10, 2010

A current controversial federal law allows product manufacturers to withhold the identity of untested chemicals from the public if the manufacturer has rea­son to believe that such public knowledge could harm business — and even if the manufacturer and the feds know that a chemical poses a considerable risk to public health. It’s crazy, and it’s backward, but it’s business. While the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is designed to assure public safety in a world heavily saturated with chemicals, including anti-stain agents, non-stick frying pan coatings and flame retardants, the law clearly places big business interests over public safety and the environment.

Such federal leniency toward chemical producers leaves groups like the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) picking up the slack. At this Oakland-based nonprofit, staff scientists keep eyes and ears to the world of unseen chemicals with the objective of moni­toring what the Environmental Protection Agency allows to stream into the environment. It was SFEI that discovered in 2008 that harbor seals in San Fran­cisco Bay contain the highest levels of perfluorinated compounds in the world. Levels of these chemicals, often called PFCs, measured several times higher than those observed in comparative samples tested from animals throughout the United States and Eurasia. The institute found some of the same substances pre­sent in Tomales Bay, though at lower densities.

Dr. Susan Klosterhaus, an environmental scientist at SFEI, suspects common house dust is a substantial source of the Bay’s accumulated PFCs. These com­pounds are a family of stain- and grease-resistant chemicals that occur in household products like food packaging, Gore-Tex clothing, nonstick frying pans, shampoos, and almost countless others. PFCs have been observed to spawn tumor growth and disrupt reproductive processes in mammals.

But these compounds are legal. Meanwhile, care of the Toxic Substances Control Act, unknown chemi­cals are probably streaming into the environment right under our noses, says Klosterhaus. The problem, she says, is that the federal law’s allowances toward chemical manufacturer interests make knowing where to look for chemicals — or what to even look for at all — almost impossible.

“The tricky part of this is that you have to know what you're looking for before you can look for it,” she says. “Monitoring emerging contaminants in San Francisco Bay is like looking for a needle in a haystack when you don't know what the needle looks like.”

The only way Klosterhaus was able to search for the PFCs that she and others with the institute iden­tified in local harbor seals was that the chemicals’ identities were already public information.

But about one fifth of the 84,000 commercially used chemicals in the United States are legally secret, and it’s very common — almost ubiquitous — practice among manufacturers to seek some level of secrecy from the EPA when introducing new chemicals; last year, 95% of registrants sought some degree of secrecy status for new chemicals.

According to the EPA, the list of undisclosed chemicals includes 151 that are produced at rates of more than one million tons per year, and only a hand­ful of people know just what these chemicals are. These individuals include select officials with the EPA who manage the commercial chemical registration process, and while the Toxic Substances Control Act requires that manufacturers report to these officials all relevant information about new chemicals, if secrecy status is granted, these EPA officials may be legally barred from disclosing the information to the public or to other federal agencies.

The public’s safety is left to chance.

Last year the EPA received 1200 notifications of new chemicals entering the market. According to Enesta Jones, a public information officer with the EPA, the government, where it deems necessary, “will take regulatory action to mitigate the risk and or ensure data are developed to better understand the extent of possible risk.” But chemicals — all of which are toxic to some degree, acknowledged Jones — are not necessarily barred from use.

Groups like SFEI are left doing the dirty work. As SFEI’s executive director Rainer Roenicke puts it, “The burden of proof is on us to show that these things are dangerous, not on the manufacturer to prove that they’re safe to begin with.”

Klosterhaus warns that any public trust in the laws that protect Americans from harmful substances may be a shade optimistic.

“Few of these chemicals are tested before they go into the market,” she says. “The general public seems to assume that the things in their houses are safe because someone is protecting them, but no one really is.”

In fact, there is no legal limit to just how “toxic” a chemical can be. According to the EPA’s Jones, tox­icity level of a chemical is weighed against risk of exposure as officials determine how to regulate a chemical — but chemicals are not simply prohibited based on toxicity levels, which may be sky-high if exposure risk is judged to be low. In fact, many of the 17,000 secret chemicals in legal circulation in the United States pose “substantial risk” to those who come in contact with them, according to mandatory manufacturers’ reports submitted to the EPA. The dangerous assumption made by the EPA is that most people, if not all, simply won’t come into substantial contact with these toxins.

The bottom line: We know we’re being poisoned. The federal government just won’t tell us how. ¥¥

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