America’s entrepreneurs have long applied chemistry to make new products that enrich our lives. But sadly, many chemical innovations have turned out to be dangerous, even deadly. Asbestos and formaldehyde cause cancer and have been largely banned from consumer products. Bisphenol A, an additive to plastics, makes plastics clear and tough but is believed to disrupt human hormones.
A few consumer companies, such as Seventh Generation, Method and Naturepedic, have devoted themselves to making products that are safer to use while still getting the job done. Behind these familiar names stand other innovators who push the science forward; these companies develop safe and effective chemicals that companies like Seventh Generation can incorporate in their products.
To protect public health and attract entrepreneurs to invent and commercialize safer chemicals, we need a referee. The referee needs to decide, quickly and scientifically, what chemicals are safe and what chemicals are not. That way, venture capital can find its way to legitimate business opportunities, and manufacturers can make sound decisions regarding what chemicals they can use without fear of disruption and lawsuits.
The Environmental Protection Agency wears the referee’s jersey, but the law under which it works desperately needs to be modernized. The EPA follows the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is nearly 40 years old. The law is unnecessarily restrictive and cumbersome. For example, of 80,000 chemicals in current production, some 62,000 of them have never been tested under the law; they can’t be tested, because they are grandfathered in.
Because the law is cumbersome and restrictive, some states have moved ahead with more stringent standards. When a big state like California sets a tougher standard, manufacturers are encouraged to find safer alternatives that they can market nationwide, rather than make and stock different variants of their products for different states.
The current situation doesn’t satisfy anyone. The lack of clarity about what products are safe and what products are dangerous creates legal risk for manufacturers, public health risk for consumers, and makes it hard to raise money to commercialize better alternatives. In addition, chemical manufacturers hate the complexity and uncertainty that results when any state can create its own unique regulations.
This situation cries out for streamlining and offers potential improvements to all stakeholders. A bill is working its way through Congress with the awkward name of the “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act,” and the unpronounceable acronym “FLCSA.” This bill is co-sponsored by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Despite the presence of the words “chemical safety” in its name, this bill appears designed to delay and drag out the process of testing chemicals to determine their safety. In turn, it will obstruct the innovators who stand poised to bring new and better chemicals to market. The bill mandates a slow pace: only 25 chemicals will be reviewed in the first three years of work. The bill prevents the EPA from taking action on chemicals found to be toxic without an exhaustive, case-by-case investigation of each specific product in which a hazardous chemical is used (and there could be hundreds). Finally, the bill prevents states from preempting federal regulation, even when no federal regulation has been formulated yet.
All of these provisions will have the effect of further slowing an already slow and cumbersome process. These rules are designed to delay decisions as long as possible, rather than make quick decisions quickly based on sound science.
America’s research scientists and entrepreneurs have great capacity to innovate. If untethered, they can solve the public health problems caused by dangerous chemicals, and at the same time, return a profit to their investors. But to realize the full power of the market, we need regulatory reform that brings clear decisions, not one delay after another.
David Brodwin is a co-founder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. This article appeared in U.S. News & World Report April 6, 2015.