By Neil Shifrin
July 18, 2013
Since the 1979 Love Canal hazardous waste site incident, we remain fearful and obsessed with cleaning and avoiding hazardous wastes. About $200 Billion will be spent on future Superfund responses. We pay dearly to address chemicals 50 feet below the ground, while we also pay daily to put some of those same chemicals under our sinks. Why the dichotomy? Partly, it is because we have no rational way to consider the risks from the products we use. We only consider the benefits - cleans well, costs less, leaves no residue. Perhaps we don’t consider the risks because we choose not to, or perhaps it is because no one has provided a system to help us consider them, although much information does exist.
Rating systems exist for other issues. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established the “Energy Star” system for appliances and gas mileage ratings for cars. All things being equal, we choose the 4-Star refrigerator over the 3-Star even if we don’t know what is really behind the rating system because we assume the system has merit. Perhaps a system could be developed to rate shampoos on the basis of health risk so that we could factor that in along with price and performance. Just as the Energy Star system has made refrigerators more energy efficient, overall, a chemical product safety rating system might make chemical products safer. Both consumers and manufacturers strive to be “green,” and a chemical product safety rating system could help both sides of the checkout counter be better at it.
The European Union has enacted REACH (Regulation, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) to help protect consumers from chemical risks. In the U.S., the Consumer Product Safety Commission enforces the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act and other laws aimed primarily at physical dangers from products like unsafe cribs or cars, but the CPSC also aims at some chemical hazards. The EPA has many statutory authorities to consider chemical hazards, such as chemicals in drinking water, pesticides, and manufactured chemical hazard information under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), but the agency has no direct authority or consolidated program to consider chemical hazards from consumer products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has some limited authority when consumer products intersect with food (e.g., food coloring) or for some personal care products, but once again, the FDA is probably not the right agency to deal with consumer chemical product safety on a broad scale. Besides, who wants more regulation? Let industry regulate itself on this topic. Consumers should demand it.