A few years ago, I was shocked to learn that Congress passed a law in 1976 (The Toxic Substances Control Act) that stripped the EPA’s authority to regulate “industrial chemicals”; a highly deceptive term because this scary category actually includes household products. Under this terrible law, the EPA couldn’t even test a new chemical until it was on the market and people started getting sick, turning us into guinea pigs for the past 40 years. Given the tens of thousands of potentially harmful chemicals introduced over four decades, God only knows how many toxic cocktails have accumulated in our systems, including asbestos and formaldehyde, and how many years were shaved off innocent people’s lives. Yes, asbestos. The United States is the only country on earth where asbestos is still legal under “specific applications” like brake pads, which means if you’ve ever changed your own brakes (like I have), you’ve been exposed.
This law is a perfect example of how Congress allows corporations to put profits before people. In this case, Congress’ abrogation of its sworn duty to protect the public is particularly flagrant (and unforgiveable), because it violates citizen’s fundamental right not to buy products that kill them. Worse, it constitutes an active suppression of critical information, which is vital to sound economics. Consumers need accurate information to make informed purchases, otherwise you get what economists call a “dead-weight” loss. In this context, the public is literally treated as dead weight.
There are currently tens of thousands of chemicals off limits to EPA scrutiny because of the law, which also mandates that EPA conduct a cost benefit analysis the few times the agency even considers banning a potential toxin. It was this provision that forbade EPA from outlawing asbestos from American products, because the courts ruled EPA hadn’t accounted for chemical companies’ losses. Since 1976, only five out of the 85,000 chemicals on the market have been banned under this stringent pro-business standard, while only a small fraction have even been tested. Add the fact that EPA has been historically underfunded by a Congress hostile to its mission, and we might as well scrap the agency’s oversight of “industrial chemicals” (household products) altogether.
As usual, the lame-stream media was nowhere the past forty years on yet another example of Congress’ unwillingness to protect the public. Thankfully, the law was finally amended several weeks ago but is still riddled with loopholes, and was only enacted because industry found state bans against suspected toxins inconvenient. However, states have now lost their right to initially ban chemicals under the new federal standard. As usual, the law is unnecessarily complicated due to carve outs designed to protect profits over people, and, of course, the more complicated legislation is, the harder it is for the public to grasp, and the less likely they’ll pay attention to it. Complex regulation also creates barriers to entry for small business, which the big guys love.
Of course the chemical industry’s response is that we need “compromise”, otherwise thousands of jobs will be lost, but the first thing our parents taught us was never to compromise on health. Well, I guess they forgot to add: “Except in corporate America.” Yes, the standard fear-mongering about job loss shouldn’t be taken lightly, but therein lies the problem. Moneyed interests in America have always been fond of embedding systems into our economy that are either under-regulated or never should’ve been allowed in the first place (like slavery). Then, these nefarious practices get so entrenched we either have to fight a war to snuff them out or suffer seismic economic consequences to disentangle them from the economy. Examples include: Our dependence on foreign oil, processed food, cheap imports, standardized tests, for-profit prisons, for-profit colleges, for-profit healthcare, and on and on and on . . .