Better Lives through Chemistry is the long-accepted mantra of the chemical industry, but the downside of modern chemistry is less well touted.

Chemistry is the science of matter and the changes it goes through. Dating back at least to the discovery of fire, humans have always attempted to manipulate matter to make our lives better. Cooking food may be the most basic example.

With the Industrial Revolution, our capacity to manipulate matter began a sharp upswing. In the last 60 years or so, it blasted off the chart. Combining substances with each other in specific temperature and pressure ranges, the world’s chemical industry produces thousands of new products each year.

Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, however, which is required to test its products to ensure human safety, the chemical industry has no similar obligation. Rather, through use and the vagrancies of international reporting, those that cause harm to people are sometimes catalogued…but not always. Today, more than 160,000 chemicals are listed in the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances, but no one knows the safe exposure limits of tens of thousands of them.

Workplace exposure to these toxics is an obvious but poorly addressed problem, but the great unknown of cancer research is the danger of routine exposure to these poisons in the air, water and food we consume. Despite the occasional exposé of an isolated problem – BPA in baby bottles is a recent example – we know little about how extensively we consume these chemicals and their ultimate health impacts.

A promising opportunity to get on top of this problem is the current effort to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 to make manufacturers responsible for providing a “dossier” or profile on their chemicals that lists detailed safety and health information and makes testing data available. In addition, TSCA reform would no longer allow manufacturers to hide information behind proprietary property designations.

Both the House and the Senate have TSCA reform legislation in the works, and the potential for passage is good, in part, because polls show that the public now considers chemical companies untrustworthy. In addition, pressure is mounting because the U.S. is falling behind regulators in Europe, Canada and elsewhere who are adopting control banding, a regulatory system under which the exposure controls required for managing categories of known toxics are automatically extended to any new chemical that falls into an existing category. As new products are often derivatives of established ones, control banding has the potential to greatly reduce dangerous exposures for workers, the environment and the public. In Europe, through the REACH program, the burden of public safety is shifting to the chemical industry where it rightfully belongs.

Efforts to bring the U.S. in line with the world’s most advanced chemical regulatory scheme are being led by the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership of environmental and labor organizations in which LIUNA is active. Its focus, now, is on passage of Senate bill (S3209), sponsored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D – NJ). To join the effort, visit Support Chemical Reform Now.

[Steve Clark]