People used to laugh at Richard Wiles when he started lobbying Congress 10 years ago for tighter rules on the chemicals allowed in consumer products.
Although chemicals known to harm human health -- such as mercury and asbestos -- were making it into everything from computers to carpets, the government had no power to enforce bans. The chemical industry seemed untouchable.
This is all changing. Wiles and other consumer advocates are now helping to shape what is expected to be a massive overhaul of American chemical policy.
"There's been non-stop pressure from the scientific community and the media on the hazards of some of the industry's signature chemicals," says Wiles, co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy, arguing that consumers are increasingly reluctant to buy products they believe might leech poisons. "Consumer groups have driven up the heat so much that it has affected the companies' bottom line."
Products on American store shelves now contain a whopping 89,000 chemicals, with a core group of 3,000 making up about 95 percent of the chemicals in use. Some of these chemicals have been proven in studies to increase the risk of cancer, neurological disorders or reproductive defects. Mercury, for example, used to make button-sized batteries, can damage neurological development in fetuses and children. Asbestos, used in home insulation and brakes, among others, can cause cancer.
Yet the Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary responsibility in this area, is virtually powerless to regulate these chemicals.
But now, thanks in part to a change of heart by chemical companies such as DuPont and Dow Chemical, Congress may soon be considering a bill which would overhaul the EPA's regulatory powers.
Senator Frank Lautenberg, D–N.J., who has been pushing for reforms of America's outdated chemicals regulation for years, is expected to introduce a new Senate bill in coming weeks.
Consumer advocates say a bill has a better chance of passing than ever, largely because the chemical industry now supports reform.
"Our industry understands there are fundamental hazards and risks in chemicals," says Mike Walls, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council. "As part of our efforts as good stewards, we want to make sure these risks are minimized to the extent possible."
The bill has not been introduced yet, and passage is far from guaranteed. But if successful, a bill could lead to bans against many harmful chemicals that are currently legal, such as asbestos and mercury.
The U.S. government currently has no standard mechanism to regulate which chemicals can be used, even those that have been found in studies to harm human health and which have been banned in other countries.
The primary agency responsible for overseeing chemicals in consumer products is the EPA, but the law it relies on – the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 – is considered to be ineffective and outdated.
To fill the void, regulators have dealt with problems haphazardly. In 2008, after high concentrations of lead were found on toys imported from China, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Act, which limited the use of lead and phthalates. Several state and local governments have enacted their own laws.
Consumer advocates complain that most regulatory measures so far are limited and reactive, and only put into effect to deal with specific crises.
Chemical companies have also occasionally stepped up the plate, and in 2006, for example, agreed to eliminate the sale of products containing a harmful Teflon ingredient by 2015. Last year, several makers of baby bottles voluntarily stopped using BPA.
BPA, short for Bisphenol A, is believed to cause genital defects and has also been linked to breast cancer. Perfluorooctanoic acid, the key ingredient in Teflon, is believed to increase cancer risk, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Companies such as SC Johnson, Staples and Walmart have been particularly proactive about crafting their own consumer protection policies, consumer advocates say.
Still, consumer advocates blame vigorous lobbying by chemical manufacturers for a lack of tight regulation.
Andy Igrejas, National Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of non-profit organizations lobbying for stricter rules, points to a 2006 incident in which trailers imported from China provided by FEMA following Hurricane Katrina were found to leech poisonous levels of formaldehyde.
"Formaldehyde at those levels is illegal in China and in the European Union, but not here," he says. "These trailers were made in China, and because our laws are weaker than China's, they made trailers out of a dirtier material for sale here."
Formaldehyde has been classified both by the EPA and the World Health Organization as a substance that likely causes cancer.
The EPA's hands have been tied for decades. In the 1980s, the EPA conducted a 10-year study that yielded 100,000 pages of research, and announced it planned to ban most products made with asbestos. An uproar from the asbestos industry ensued, and in 1991, two years after the EPA's announcement, an asbestos manufacturer sued the EPA in an appeals court and won, causing the ban to be overturned.