By Elise Hunter (’13)
Blog cross posted on GreenBiz.com
The Safe Chemicals Act, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), champions the protection of consumers from the hazards of household products. While many public interest groups have hailed this legislation as an unambiguous win for consumers and a punishment for Big Chemical, the Safe Chemicals Act would actually benefit businesses in the long run by inspiring greater public confidence and by rewarding sustainability innovators.
The Safe Chemicals Act would deliver improvements all along the value chain, from large-scale chemical manufacturers to the consumer goods companies that process and package chemicals into the cleaners and personal care products sold in the supermarket aisle.
Sen. Lautenberg has introduced versions of the Safe Chemicals Act into the Senate for the past seven years with the goal of replacing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is a 35-year-old regulation that requires EPA to demonstrate “unreasonable risk” to public health from existing chemical ingredients — and has effectively grandfathered in at least 62,000 untested chemicals in the marketplace. As more and more scientific studies link chemicals in household products to birth defects, cancers and other illnesses, consumers are becoming alarmed. A recent poll found that a staggering 68 percent of the public supports an overhaul of TSCA.
The Safe Chemicals Act mandates that all chemicals present “reasonable certainty of no harm” and requires manufacturers to submit testing data to the EPA so that chemicals can be prioritized according to potential risk. Under the Safe Chemicals Act, EPA has the authority to restrict or remove chemicals of high concern. Although Lautenberg did grant major concessions to get the Safe Chemicals Act passed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July 2012 – one of which was reducing the testing requirement for new chemicals to minor screenings — the legislation is still a dramatic change that shifts the burden of proof from EPA to industry.
So if the Safe Chemicals Act passes, would it stifle innovation and hinder sales, as opposing trade groups have implied? My guess would be no. Having worked for a federal agency in an environmental role and having interned at a Fortune 50 chemical company, I have seen firsthand how the government has tried to assist businesses while lacking critical information, which appeared to render them hamstrung.
Public relations is a challenge for chemical manufacturers, even for those that go above and beyond regulations. This is partly due to chemical release disasters that occurred decades ago, yet still stand out in the minds of the public. The Safe Chemicals Act would ease these unfortunate patterns and create a platform for both the government and business to take on more responsible, proactive roles.
1) Chemical manufacturers would be able to sell more efficiently in the U.S. In a Senate hearing last year,an executive at BASF indicated that an overhaul of TSCA could replace state laws on chemical safety, making it easier for chemical manufacturers to sell across state lines without having to comply with a patchwork of regulations.
2) Global compliance efforts would decrease. In 2006, the European Union passed the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) regulation, requiring chemical manufacturers to gather in-depth information on the hazards of chemicals for inclusion in a publically available database. Under REACH, chemicals of high concern are subject to restriction by the government, and before these substances can be released, companies that use these chemicals must prove that the risks are controlled or that no viable, safer alternatives exist. While the Safe Chemicals Act is not exactly the same as REACH, the basic regulatory structure is very similar, and global companies would be able to streamline efforts and compliance costs of both REACH and the Safe Chemicals Act.
3) Operations would be safer. Moving towards a safer baseline of chemicals would benefit the bottom line for chemical manufacturers and for consumer products companies by lowering costs associated with storage and disposal of hazardous wastes. More innocuous chemicals would also enhance worker safety, reducing health care costs and liabilities for companies over time. Of course, there are plenty of intangible benefits of a safer workplace that are harder to quantify: increased worker happiness and motivation, better retention and greater productivity.
4) Sustainable consumer products companies would be rewarded for their efforts. The Safe Chemicals Act gives an advantage to forward-thinking consumer products companies that already do not use chemicals of concern. The passage of the Safe Chemicals Act would allow these companies to continue to thrive in the marketplace, while their more dubious competitors will get mired down in safety testing and the frantic search for ingredient substitutes.
5) Greater credibility would enter the marketplace. Smart companies have the health and safety of their customers in mind. However, many companies struggle with credibility. Reassurance from a manufacturer or processor that an ingredient is safe is inherently less believable than a statement from a third-party evaluator or a regulatory body. The Safe Chemicals Act would provide more public information on chemical safety and authorizes the EPA — a more trustworthy party in the minds of consumers — to determine which chemicals are safe. Thus, companies that embrace safer ingredients would be able to use scientist-issued guideposts to differentiate themselves rather than having to rely on their own statements, which are often perceived with more skepticism by the public.
As with any new regulation, there may be struggles with interpretation and implementation at first, but ultimately the passage of the Safe Chemicals Act would be both a triumph for consumers and a competitive edge for industry.