Air Date: Week of December 5, 1997
Many of the most widely used chemicals in the U-S haven’t been tested for possible health affects; or if they have, the manufacturers haven’t released the results. But that’s changing. Four months ago, the Environmental Defense Fund went directly to the heads of the top 100 U.S. chemical manufacturers, and asked them to commit to testing the safety of their best selling chemicals by the year 2000. Now the chemical companies are starting to respond according to David Roe, Senior Attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF review looked at chemicals that can be found in a wide range of consumer products, from cleaning solvents to liquid fabric softeners.
KNOY: Many of the most widely-used chemicals in the US haven't been tested for possible health effects, or, if they have, the manufacturers haven't released the results. But, that's changing. Four months ago, the Environmental Defense Fund went directly to the heads of the top 100 US chemical manufacturers, and asked them to commit to testing the safety of their best- selling chemicals by the year 2000. Now the chemical companies are starting to respond, according to David Roe, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF review looked at chemicals that can be found in a wide range of consumer products, from cleaning solvents to liquid fabric softeners.
ROE: There are 3,000 of these high-production-volume chemicals. Now, there are lots of other chemicals, too: we're focusing on the ones that are out there in the biggest amounts. But it's the ones that you're not likely to have thought about or heard of. It's not the lead, or the methylene chloride, or the dioxin that we've all heard a great deal about in the press. It's the ones that haven't been tested and therefore we simply don't know, whether they're seriously toxic or not. We certainly can't say that they're toxic without looking, but the flip side is the important side: no one can say that they're safe, until they've been tested.
KNOY: Can you give us some names?
ROE: Well, I don't want to give you a name brand, because of course, what we're talking about is things that haven't been tested, so we don't know, whether they're safe or not. But these are products that would be under the sink, in the medicine cabinet, all over the house, and of course, in the environment once you step out the front door. And the point is to get all of those high-volume chemicals at least preliminarily tested so we've got some idea where to go, which ones are likely to be safe, which ones are not.
KNOY: What exactly did you ask the companies to do?
ROE: Well, we released a study that pointed out that, of the 3,000 top-selling chemicals in the United States, we were missing basic health data on more than two-thirds of them. We went directly to the top of the top 100 chemical companies and said, "This isn't good enough. Will you step in and take direct responsibility for your own chemicals? And get the testing done before the year 2000.
KNOY: What reporting requirements are there already, David? Do companies have to conduct any testing and provide the government with the information?
ROE: Well, Laura, the laws and regulations are trapped in a kind of Catch-22. They need facts in order to go out and dig up more facts. So if there's no preliminary testing, if there's no red lights or yellow lights flashing from the early tests, then the agency cannot go any further.
KNOY: When you say "the agency," do you mean the Environmental Protection Agency?
ROE: The Environmental Protection Agency is the primary agency here, yes.
KNOY: Which companies promise to conduct the studies and release the results?
ROE: Well, among the companies that came right back and said, "Yes, we will take direct responsibility. We'll get this testing done before the year 2000," were Alcoa; BP Chemicals, which is a division of British Petroleum; Georgia-Pacific Resins, which is Georgia-Pacific's chemical company; Olin Corporation; and Solutia, which is what Monsanto Corporation turned into when they split their operations. That's not the whole list; there are 11 of them, and most of the companies are still trying to make up their minds.
KNOY: What were some of the big names that said, "No, we will not do this."
ROE: Sonoco, the oil company; Fena; Asarco, the mining company; and a couple of others. There were 6 in all. That's a surprisingly small number, when you consider that this is an issue that was on nobody's radar screen, as recently as this past summer. Nobody seemed to realize that there were these huge gaps in the safety data that we all rely on.
KNOY: David, why did the Environmental Defense Fund decide to go directly to the chemical makers, instead of doing what normally is done, and that would be lobbying Congress for some sort of a new reporting requirement.
ROE: Well, the reporting requirements are already there, it's just that they haven't worked. But it seemed very clear to us, that after 25 years under reporting requirements that were supposed to work, it wasn't good enough to start again from ground zero and go back to Congress or go back to the agencies. We thought the public had a right to look directly to the big manufacturers for the safety of those companies' own chemicals.
KNOY: How do you think this effort will affect the average consumer?
ROE: Ideally, the average consumer will be living in a safer chemical world without seeing anything different. We hope that everyone can rest easier, knowing that the basic screening has been done. And of course, if it turns up a problem, then the machinery of law and regulation can move into place. What this whole project is about, is getting that first information on the table, so we can see where to go from there.
KNOY: David Roe is a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund. Thanks for joining us.
ROE: Thank you.
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