Lack of Information about Dispersants in Gulf Due to Failed Chemicals Policy, Experts Say

Details on specific provisions being called for by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition (PDF)

A coalition of 250 environmental and public health organizations today called on Congress to include specific provisions to ensure the safety of oil spill dispersants — more than one million gallons of which have now been released into the Gulf of Mexico – in the pending bill to overhaul the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Under current law, government cannot compel dispersant makers to disclose the chemicals used in their products; nor are they required to test their products sufficiently to ensure their safety — two fundamental flaws that are making a bad situation worse in the Gulf.

“We are rolling the dice with the health of workers and marine life in the Gulf by using dispersants that we know very little about,” said Andy Igrejas, Director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition. “We need a stronger law to ensure that chemical dispersants, and the wide variety of products that we bring into our homes and offices every day, are safe.”

In April Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Reps. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced bills to overhaul TSCA, which are expected to be taken up by Congress this summer. According to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, effective TSCA reform will require:

  • Reigning in Trade Secrets – Under current law, dispersant manufacturers routinely claim the identities of chemicals and product ingredients to be “confidential business information.” The new law needs to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to compel companies to disclose identities and concentrations of dispersant ingredients where, as in the current case, the public interest far exceeds private interests.
  • Testing for Long-term Effects – Under current law, only a few short-term aquatic toxicity tests of dispersants are required, and individual components are rarely subject to any required testing. The new law must require testing sufficient to identify long- as well as short-term effects on the marine environment, wildlife, workers, and local residents.
  • Proof of Safety – Under current law, EPA is not mandated to assess the safety of dispersants or their ingredients. The new law needs to place the burden of proof on dispersant makers to demonstrate the safety of their products, including for vulnerable populations and under worst-case scenarios.
  • Ample Regulatory Authority – Under current law, EPA must prove “unreasonable risk” in order to restrict or control the use of dispersant ingredients – a burden it was unable to meet even for asbestos, a known carcinogen. The new law must give EPA authority to disallow use of any dispersant that fails to meet safety requirements, and to immediately halt or alter dispersant use where on-the-ground conditions warrant.

More details on the specific provisions being called for by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition can be found here (PDF).

“People on the Gulf Coast are very worried about health risks from the dispersants,” said Gina Solomon, MD, MPH, Senior Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who recently visited the Gulf. “I wish I could reassure them that it’s okay, but without more data on the environmental and health effects of these chemicals, it’s tough to make science-based determinations of safety.”

Very few data are available on the Corexit dispersants that have been used in the Gulf. EPA regulations only require two short-term tests of acute toxicity to fish and shrimp for a dispersant to gain approval for use in any quantity. And only limited short-term data are available on individual ingredients as well, with virtually no data on toxicity to surface- or bottom-dwelling organisms, land animals and plants, or birds.

“All chemicals used in products we come in contact with should be tested according to standards similar to those we use for pharmaceuticals,” said Richard Murphy, Ph.D., Director of Science and Education at Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Future’s Society. “In other words, companies must prove chemicals are safe before entering the marketplace.”

When TSCA passed in 1976, it grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals – including many of the ingredients in the dispersants still being used today – without requiring any testing or demonstration of safety. In the ensuing three decades under TSCA, EPA has required testing for only a few hundred of those chemicals, and has only partially restricted five. Meanwhile, a growing body of science has documented widespread human exposures to toxic chemicals in everyday products, and has linked those exposures to the rising incidence of a number of serious chronic diseases and disorders, including reduced fertility, learning disabilities, breast and prostate cancer, and certain childhood cancers.

“By allowing poorly-tested and ineffective dispersants to dominate the market, forcing us to rely on them over safer and more effective alternatives, our failed chemical safety law has compounded the tragic events unfolding in the Gulf,” said Dr. Richard Denison, senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “Congress must enact TSCA reform legislation that requires full safety testing and drives innovation to develop the most effective and safest possible dispersants, so we’re better prepared the next time a disaster like this one comes along.”