20% of Chemicals in Commerce Claim To Be 'Trade Secrets'

January 13, 2010

Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton tossed out a bombshell last week that should disturb every reporter whose job is to report to the US public on environmental hazards to their health. Layton wrote:

"Of the 84,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States — from flame retardants in furniture to household cleaners — nearly 20 percent are secret, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, their names and physical properties guarded from consumers and virtually all public officials under a little-known federal provision."

Is somebody screening those chemicals to make sure they do not cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, or neurological toxicity? Not very much really, except in a minority of cases. Without information about chemical identity, doctors and consumers have no chance of telling whether they cause health effects or whether they should avoid them.

What is more important than public health — Congress, the courts, and EPA seem to have decided three decades ago when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 was passed — is industry profits. Companies can claim that the information is a trade secret and get a nearly automatic exemption from the Freedom of Information Act before their claim is ever assessed. Companies are supposed to submit data on new chemicals, and EPA is supposed to screen them, but TSCA works poorly if at all, and its failure is partly hidden by secrecy.

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