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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Congress Takes on Chemicals

Air Date: Week of

A future of phthalate-free rubber duckies? (Courtesy of Breast Cancer Fund)

Congress is venturing into new regulatory territory with a recent ban on several varieties of the plasticizing chemicals known as pthalates. Usually government agencies regulate products on the market, but environmental health advocates say this latest ban shows Congress is picking up the slack on chemical regulation. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Andy Igrejas of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Environmental Health Campaign.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

In an unusual move, Congress has banned some members of a family of chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates are found in tens of thousands of products including plastic toys - shower curtains - adhesives, cosmetics and shampoos. The federal ban, which goes into effect in six months, applies to three kinds of phthalates – and follows bans enacted by California, Washington, and Vermont. Supporters of the federal ban see this as just the first step towards tougher national standards for other chemicals used in consumer products. The Pew Charitable Trust was among the groups that pushed for the phthalate ban. Andy Igrejas manages the Pew’s Environmental Health Campaign. Welcome to Living on Earth!

IGREJAS: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: This is actually a rare action by Congress, isn’t it? I mean usually it’s the federal regulatory agencies like the EPA that would get involved with banning a chemical. I can’t remember the last time they banned something like this.

IGREJAS: That’s true. Congress has not often banned chemicals. They banned PCBs in the 70s. But they’re doing it now because they’ve realized that the, unlike some of the major environmental laws that we have like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act that have basically been functioning and working, the law that deals with this has not been functioning, it has not been working. And it’s resulted in chemicals in toys and in cosmetics and in other consumer products that have health problems associated with them and where no one is really minding the store.

GELLERMAN: Well right now the way chemicals are dealt with in the United States is they’re innocent until proven guilty. In the EU they have something called a REACH program, which is just the opposite—they have to prove something is safe in the marketplace.

Andy Igrejas of the Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Health

IGREJAS: That’s right. Europe has overhauled its process for regulating chemicals. They’re starting to make sure that the chemicals are safe before they’re on the market and to review the chemicals that are already on the market in an orderly way and make sure they’re safe and basically have them taken off if they’re not. And that has led in a number of areas to having standards in Europe that are tougher than they are here. And that’s one of the things that has started to motivate state legislatures as they look at the federal government being absent in regulating these problems. And then they realize that in their own borders, they’re having products that—China is making a safer set of products to sell into Europe—but they’re actually making products using more toxic chemicals to sell into the United States.

GELLERMAN: So are there American companies manufacturing products that meet the European standards for safety, much more strict than the standards here, and that the products they sell here wouldn’t meet those that they’re producing for Europe?

IGREJAS: Absolutely. One of the problems I think for the chemical industry is that Europe is a major market for American companies and they’re now having to comply with European standards. And it gets very hard to say that this is going to be the end of the world if you have to do this here if you’re already having to do it for Europe. And particularly if you’re having to do it both for Europe and for a major state. And that is the problem I think they’re facing and that’s why Congress was starting to look at some of these claims of, “Oh, we won’t be able to, there will be no toys, it will be the year without a Santa Claus if you pass this.” And I think they start to look at this skeptically because that kind of argument doesn’t fly. There are toys in Europe, they’re just safer.

GELLERMAN: When I go into a store, the products aren’t marked phthalates, there’s no ingredient list. So how would I know if it is or isn’t in a product?

IGREJAS: It’s very hard. I think that for a consumer there isn’t really a labeling system that allows the consumer to judge these questions. Some companies and some stores will wind up pointing out that these toys are phthalate-free and that kind of thing. With cosmetics for example, phthalates used to be on the label for some things but they didn’t have to be on the label if they’re considered a component of fragrance so they wouldn’t be on the label for some products that I know my own organization had found them in when it did product testing. And the consumer can’t sit there and have its chemistry set at home and test these products so we need the government really to be doing that. And that’s why we do think that this issue of the chemicals in toys is sort of a harbinger of what’s gonna come with chemicals more generally. That Congress has seen how that system is broken and will revisit that law—it’s called the Toxic Substances Control Act—and basically try and make it more protective.

GELLERMAN: Well it is a one and a half billion dollar industry, the petrochemical industry put up a vociferous fight, you know, what are the economic outcomes here of a ban?

Rubber duckies might be free of phthalates in the future. (Courtesy of Breast Cancer Fund)

IGREJAS: The toy industry and the chemical industry have basically shown that they can make toys without these chemicals. And that’s one of the interesting things here I think that in a way the chemical industry’s opposition to this ban was as much about maintaining a line in the sand against federal involvement in this area. They’ve been on sort of easy street in terms of not having the federal government really scrutinizing this area and they want to keep it that way. But you started to see the toy industry and some of the major retailers signal that well, basically if we’re having to do this in California, then, you know, we can live with this nationally. But I think the chemical industry was afraid of a precedent being set, of Congress really getting involved here, and they wanted to fight it more on that ground than on any real economic ground. That’s why I think they were fighting so hard on this.

GELLERMAN: Well, Andy Igrejas, thank you very much.

IGREJAS: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Andy Igrejas manages the Pew Charitable Trust’s Environmental Health campaign.



Breast Cancer Fund

Pew Charitable Trusts


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