150 Chemicals Are No Longer Incognito


green.blogs.nytimes.com | Jun 13, 2011

By JOANNA M. FOSTER

This month the Environmental Protection Agency made public the names of 150 chemicals that were investigated in health and safety studies but whose identities were withheld as confidential business information.

Fresh crude and oil broken down by dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico in May 2010. Several ingredients of Corexit, the chief dispersant that BP used to dissolve the oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill, are among 150 chemicals whose identities have been disclosed by the E.P.A.European Pressphoto AgencyOil broken down by dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico last year. Some ingredients of the dispersant Corexit were among 150 chemicals whose identities were disclosed by the E.P.A.

The release of the information, which identified chemicals researched in 104 studies, reflects a slow but determined effort by the E.P.A. to reform what it views as a flawed system for regulating toxic substances. It is the second disclosure of its kind this year, after the release of 40 chemicals’ names in March.

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The agency is working to remedy what it views as the abuse of so called C.B.I. privileges, which prevent the public from learning that a specific chemical may pose risks.

The chemicals’ identities were withheld under the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that gives the E.P.A. the authority to set reporting and testing requirements for chemical substances. (Food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides are exempted from that law.) Critics have faulted the measure as ineffective in protecting the public, noting that 17,000 of the 84,000 chemicals on the agency’s toxic substances inventory are not publicly identified at the manufacturers’ request.

At the time of the law’s passing, industrial chemicals were deemed innocent until proven guilty, meaning that it was the E.P.A.’s responsibility to show that a chemical posed a potential risk, not the manufacturer’s to demonstrate its safety. Since 1976, 22,000 new chemicals have been approved by the agency; 62,000 were already on the market when the law was passed.

Although the agency has the authority to review and challenge the confidentiality requests, it has lacked the capacity to cope with the tens of thousands filed each year. On average, only about 14 cases have been reviewed annually, although that pace is now accelerating.

When health and safety data have been submitted to the E.P.A. on a specific chemical, the bar in theory is supposed to be set higher, allowing the chemical’s name to be withheld only if a study reveals sensitive details of the chemical’s manufacturing process or a specific, proprietary formulation. Yet once a chemical’s name had been protected as confidential during its early development, its identity tended to remain confidential indefinitely.

Included on the list of 150 chemicals issued on Wednesday are several components of Corexit, a dispersant manufactured by Nalco that was used to break down oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill last year in the Gulf of Mexico.

Medical professionals and ecologists will now have access to the health and safety data for chemicals on the list, opening the way for a deeper understanding of the risks of exposure for humans and marine wildlife.

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