When I talk about chemical fire retardants, or phthalates, I often get the response that somebody, some government agency - the FDA? the EPA? ... is, surely, looking out for this stuff and protecting us.
Wouldn't that be nice.
The reality is much more frustrating, and borders on criminal. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) technically has the authority to oversee the many chemicals that we are exposed to. But, of the ~85,000 chemicals on the market, only several hundred have been evaluated. That means we know little about the vast majority of chemicals that are currently approved for use.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the main relevant federal statute under which the EPA can act, but while the EPA has been given the responsibility to enact TSCA they have been given little enforcement authority. And the burden of proof is ludicrously high. (See the flow chart below).
In addition, the current law grandfathered in thousands of chemicals already on the market. And the 50's and 60's - the decades preceding the law - weren't especially known for healthy chemicals. Cough, cough, Silent Spring. According to the Environmental Working Group, "[The TSCA] law is so broken and so weak that the EPA could not even ban asbestos, a cancer-causing substance that is still in use and killing thousands of Americans each year."
And, when it comes to substances in contact with food, the story is just as grim - if not worse, for being in direct contact with our food. This packaging would in theory be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but the FDA has limited authority over food packaging materials that were in use before 2000, including BPA.
In 2010, the FDA made its biggest move on the topic, updating regulations so that BPA could no longer be used in certain packaging for infant products, specifically baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant formula packaging. For starters, that barely helps infants given the widespread use of BPA, and it definitely doesn't help we adults. It's especially limited when you consider the ~100 scientific studies showing BPA was detrimental at the time. As the Union of Concerned Scientists said, "The FDA declares that bisphenol A is safe, despite scientific evidence."
Several US states have taken up the mantle, but are still doing so on a chemical-by-chemical basis. The case in Europe is better, although some countries are still permitting levels that are high enough to do harm. Lots of progress to be made, friends. Bird by bird.
With the FDA and EPA letting us down, we - along with a lot of awesome research and nonprofit organizations - will do our best to help you avoid these toxicants.
1. Chemical Policy (TSCA). Environmental Working Group. http://www.ewg.org/key-issues/toxics/chemical-policy#.WdZPxsiGM2w
2. How the Toxic Substances Control Act Evaluates Chemicals. Environmental Working Group. http://cdn3.ewg.org/sites/default/files/Flow_Chart_C02.pdf?_ga=2.224327773.755641555.1507217110-321987484.1507217109
3. Six Classes. Green Science Policy Institute. http://www.sixclasses.org/
4. BPA in Canned Food. Environmental Working Group. http://www.ewg.org/research/bpa-canned-food/regulation-bpa#.WdaDBMiGM2w
5. Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application. FDA. https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/publichealthfocus/ucm064437.htm
6. The FDA Declares that Bisphenol A is Safe, Despite Scientific Evidence. Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/center-science-and-democracy/promoting-scientific-integrity/bisphenol-a.html#.WdaGuMiGM2w
7. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 2008. Press release, “Dingell, Stupak Request Interview with Von Eschenbach on Bisphenol A.” October 15.