Toxic Chemicals and the Legacy of Rachel Carson (Part 2): TSCA & Personal Care Industry Regulations

Post Highlights: This is a dense one, so here are the main points:

  • TSCA (1976) grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals
  • 80,000+ chemicals in use, EPA has banned 9
  • 2016 law updates TSCA, but still doesn’t regulate personal care
  • Personal care products “regulated” by industry’s CIR
  • States are taking some action to regulate industry
  • Industry constantly fighting against us: we need to fight back!

June 22nd, 2016 was a historic day. It was the day President Obama signed into law the bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, after it passed by a landslide in Congress. This law improves the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which has never been updated since its creation 40 years ago.

TSCA has been little more than a national travesty with all of its loopholes that undermine regulators, ridiculous expectations of the EPA to evaluate chemical safety, and obvious catering to industry. First off, TSCA regulated commercially used chemicals, which means it didn’t regulate pharmaceuticals, food/food packaging, pesticides, or personal care products. Second, TSCA grandfathered in an existing 62,000 chemicals that were already in use. Third, TSCA operates under the opposite of the precautionary principleˆ. Any chemical in use before 1976 could remain in use unless the EPA found “unreasonable risk” and any new chemicals could be introduced into the marketplace without regulation unless the EPA found “unreasonable risk” for said chemicals. The problem is that the EPA had only 90 days to make a decision, and they rarely if ever had sufficient toxicological data to make an informed decision. Plus, they couldn’t require companies to conduct testing unless they had reason to believe the substance might be harmful. Seems like a bit of a catch 22 here…

As a result of TSCA’s stipulations, the EPA has investigated only a couple hundred of the 80,000 plus chemicals used today, and even worse, only 9 have been banned.

The revised TSCA law still does not provide sweeping regulation for personal care products, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.  Considering how many chemicals have multiple uses, this law could prove beneficial in reducing toxins in personal care products. The new law makes it easier for the EPA to regulate chemicals, and it requires testing for all substances. As in, the EPA is going to go back and rule on existing chemicals, and all new substances must pass safety testing before they can be used. However, it’s been about a year since this was signed into law and much has changed. The plan was that the EPA would have a few years to complete their review of substances they decided are top priority to regulate (they needed some prioritization because it would take them decades to do all chemicals in use).

Given the funding cuts, an amoral EPA director, and a federal government attempting to time travel to 1950, things may change course for this law. I’m no politician, so I don’t know the minutia of how it all works, but the EPA’s ability to evaluate and regulate environmental harm is correlated with their ability to function as an agency – with leadership, support, and money. A recent reversal from the EPA on their decision (under Obama) to ban a dangerous pesticide may be an indication of what is to come.

So where do personal care products stand under this regulation? Pretty much where they stood beforehand. There is really no government oversight for the cosmetics and personal care industry. The FDA only regulates color additives and any “personal care products” that are for medical purposes, including dandruff shampoo, anti-cavity toothpaste, and ointments. However, these products are still no safer than their un-FDA-regulated counterparts – they use the same toxic chemicals without scrutiny.

Personal care products are overseen by the Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel, which is an independent industry controlled group that reviews ingredients on a voluntary basis. Since the industry polices itself, they’ve naturally placed few restrictions in terms of ingredients; since the CIR started 30 years ago, they’ve only marked 11 ingredients as unsafe. Bottom line, this method of oversight is like the fox guarding the hen house. In her online video, Story of Cosmetics, Annie Leonard does a fantastic job of outlining the history and function of the CIR.

Although humans and ecosystems have long suffered the consequences of toxic chemical pollution, public concern over chemical regulations and product safety only started gaining traction during the past decade. Today, if you do a google search on toxic chemicals in cosmetics, you will find a plethora of articles from prominent magazines and newspapers. Toxicologists and ecologists are picking up from Rachel Carson and illuminating the damage of toxic chemicals in the environment. Organizations like the Environmental Working Group and Toxic-Free Future are working hard to push legislation that protects our health and our environment.

On a state level we are slowly making some progress, which is still faster than at the federal level. In 2005 California’s pro-business republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the California Safe Cosmetics Act, making it the first state to require companies to disclose ingredients that may cause birth defects or cancer. In 2008, Washington State (my home!) passed the Children’s Safe Product Act that requires companies who make children’s products (personal care included) to disclose any ingredients that are on the WA State Department of Ecology’s list of chemicals of high concern to children.

While these laws don’t ban chemicals, they are a step in the right direction of corporate accountability and transparency when it comes to ingredient labeling. Some states have started banning specific chemicals, which is good, but also makes for a complex and inconsistent method of establishing safety policies in regards to our nation as a whole.

If you’re interested in learning even more, here are some great resources about human and ecological impacts from toxic chemicals, consumer safety, and personal care policy reform:


ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.

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