Last year, a Colorado nurse became seriously ill after treating a worker involved at a gas-drilling site chemical spill. The man, who later recovered, appeared at a local hospital complaining of dizziness and nausea. His work boots were damp and he reeked of chemicals, according to the nurse. Two days later, the nurse, Cathy Behr, was fighting for her life. Her liver was failing and her lungs were filling with fluid. Her doctors diagnosed chemical poisoning and called the manufacturer, Weatherford International, to find out what she might have been exposed to. Weatherford provided safety information, including hazards, for the chemical, known as ZetaFlow. But because ZetaFlow has confidential status, the information did not include all of its ingredients.
For 33 years, corporations have exploited a little-known federal statute in order to hide the names and physical properties of dangerous chemicals in their products. The policy, called the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, requires manufacturers to report to the federal government new chemicals companies intend to market. But, the law exempts from public disclosure any information that could harm the company’s economic bottom line.
Over the past several years, 95% of the notices for new chemicals sent to the government requested some secrecy, according to the Government Accountability Office. To put that number in perspective, nearly 700 new chemicals are introduced to the market each year. In total, roughly 17,000 secret chemicals exist, and manufacturers have stated in mandatory reports that many pose a “substantial risk” to public health or the environment. In March of last year, for example, more than half of the 65 “substantial risk” reports filed with the Environmental Protection Agency involved secret chemicals.
Government officials, scientists and environmental groups say that manufacturers have exploited weaknesses in the law to claim secrecy for an ever-increasing number of chemicals. Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that documented the extent of the secret chemicals through public-records requests from the EPA, says:
You have thousands of chemicals that potentially present risks to health and the environment. It’s impossible to run an effective regulatory program when so many of these chemicals are secret.
A week after he arrived at the agency in July, Steve Owens, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, ended confidentiality protection for 530 chemicals. In those cases, manufacturers had claimed secrecy for chemicals they had promoted by name on their Web sites or detailed in trade journals. Owens said that “people who were submitting information to the EPA saw that you can claim that virtually anything is confidential and get away with it.” That obviously leads to abuse in the system.
Currently, Congress is slated to rewrite chemical regulations for the first time in over a decade. Consumers must wait to see if Congress will force companies to prove their substances should be kept confidential. Additionally, proponents of disclosure hope for better communication between federal and state entities as it pertains to secret chemicals. In my opinion, the public is entitled to know the chemical make-up of products that could cause harm to them.
Source: The Washington Post
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