Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Lead Senior Scientist.
A remarkable exposé in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine documents the “brazen, decades-long” withholding by DuPont of mounting evidence of widespread exposure to and health effects from one of its signature chemicals (nicknamed PFOA) used in manufacture of its line of Teflon brand products.
The article is compelling in many respects, not the least of which is its scathing indictment of the federal laws that are supposed to protect Americans from toxic chemical exposures. In particular, the article highlights the deep failures of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – now limping into its 40th year of existence without ever having been substantially amended. TSCA is the law that – in principle – regulates most uses of PFOA and other so-called “industrial chemicals,” thousands of which are widely used in everyday consumer products and materials ranging from household cleaners to furniture to paint to electronics.
The article’s focus on TSCA is more than justified: PFOA is one of 62,000 chemicals that were already on the market when TSCA passed in 1976. All of these chemicals were “grandfathered” under the law, effectively presumed safe without any requirement that they be tested or reviewed for safety. And while, as evidence of harm and widespread exposure mounted, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did conduct a review of PFOA (which more than a decade later is still only in draft form), its authority under TSCA is so weak that it has not even attempted to use that authority to restrict any uses of the chemical, instead having to negotiate a gradual voluntary phase-out. Indeed, EPA hasn’t tried to regulate any existing chemical under TSCA since 1991, when a court threw out its regulation of the known killer asbestos, on the grounds that EPA had not met its burden of proof of harm under TSCA.
Not mentioned in the article, however, is that for the first time ever Congress is on the verge of finally reforming TSCA. Reform bills have passed both the Senate and the House, and negotiations toward a final reconciled bill are expected to get underway any day now.
While no single law could by itself have prevented the tragic story of PFOA from unfolding, provisions of one or both bills would go a long way to help prevent such events from happening again. Let me mention some of the most important: Read More