Steven Cohen: Toxic Substances Are Out of Control

In The Huffington Post, Sustainability Management director Steven Cohen discusses the need for more rigorous regulations on harmful chemicals.

He cites the decades-old Toxic Substances Control Act, which emerged in 1976 but has yet to adapt to our increasingly noxious industrial practices. “The vast majority of chemicals -- including the one that fouled the Elk River [in Charleston, West Virginia], 4-methylcylcohexane methanol, or MCHM -- are unregulated, and little information about many of them is publicly available,” Coral Davenport wrote in The New York Times. “Under current law, even asbestos, a known carcinogen, is exempt from regulation.”

How are lawmakers responding? Cohen writes, “Under a very mild new law winding its way through Congress, EPA would be required to review the toxicity of 10 chemicals per year. This is a minuscule, almost absurd number when compared to the 64,000 unregulated chemicals now in use. The chemical industry and its lobbyists support this token effort and it is possible that it will be signed into law this summer.”

He says, “My pragmatic side wants to say that controlling ten hazards is better than controlling none, but I'm not really sure that is true. Assuming we stop inventing new chemicals, it would take over 6,000 years to test the ones we have already created.”

The good news is that one region in the U.S. has been a “pioneer in toxic substances regulation” – California. “Its environmental policies have long exceeded national requirements,” Cohen says. He suggests that legislators look to the Golden State as a model of what the Toxic Substances Control Act could and should be.

Cohen writes, “On a more crowded planet with a higher level of consumption, we need to learn to use resources more wisely and exercise greater care when we use chemicals that can harm living organisms. The toxics in Charleston's water supply were a warning. If we want to ensure that it does not represent our environmental future, we should take the warning seriously.”