Right to Know

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By David Roe, Dr. William Pease, Karen Florini, and Dr. Ellen Silbergeld.
Summer 1997

Order or download the full report
Identification of Chemicals in EDF's Random Sample (100 chemicals)

Executive Summary

After DDT, after lead, after PCBs and other unintended chemical catastrophes, our knowledge about the chemicals we allow in commerce must have gotten much better. So Congress wrote into law, and so the public has a right to assume.

Yet for most of the important chemicals in American commerce, the simplest safety facts still cannot be found. Environmental Defense Fund research indicates that, today, even the most basic toxicity testing results cannot be found in the public record for nearly 75% of the top-volume chemicals in commercial use.

In other words, the public cannot tell whether a large majority of the highest-use chemicals in the United States pose health hazards or not -- much less how serious the risks might be, or whether those chemicals are actually under control. These include chemicals that we are likely to breathe or drink, that build up in our bodies, that are in consumer products, and that are being released from industrial facilities into our backyards and streets and forests and streams.

In the early 1980s, the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council completed a four-year study and found that 78% of the chemicals in highest-volume commercial use had not had even "minimal" toxicity testing. Thirteen years later, there has been no significant improvement.

What we don't know may not be hurting us -- or it may. But guinea pig status is not what Congress promised the public more than twenty years ago. Instead, it established a national policy that the risks of toxic chemicals in our environment would be identified and controlled. Ignorance, pervasive and persistent over the course of twenty years, has made that promise meaningless.

Chemical safety can't be based on faith. It requires facts. Government policy and government regulation have been so ineffective in making progress against the chemical ignorance problem, for so long, that the chemical manufacturing industry itself must now take direct responsibility for solving it. It is high time for the facts to be delivered.

Step one toward a solution lies in simple screening tests, which manufacturers of chemicals can easily do. All chemicals in high-volume use in the United States should long since have been subjected to at least preliminary health-effects screening, with the results publicly available for verification. There is already international consensus on just what needs to be done as a first step. A model definition of what should be included in preliminary screening tests for high-volume chemicals was developed and agreed on in 1990 by the U.S. and the other member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with extensive participation from the U.S. chemical manufacturing industry. All that is missing is the industry's commitment to act, without waiting any longer.


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