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EPA agrees to reveal secret identities of potentially risky chemicals

While government opens a window, industry fears disclosure to competitors

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Washington headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency

EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency today made public the names of more than 150 chemicals whose identities in health and safety studies had been kept confidential, a move cheered by environmental advocates as a meaningful step towards greater openness in how government weighs the risks of many everyday products used by U.S. consumers .

The chemical industry’s chief trade association, meanwhile, is urging the EPA to continue considering its wishes to keep information confidential so competitors won't learn about it. The chemical industry noted that there are “legitimate claims to safeguard intellectual property."

The EPA's new steps towards disclosure offers the public more information about the potential dangers of chemicals used in many consumer products, from stain removers to non-stick materials, and is the latest in what the EPA describes as "unprecedented" steps towards transparency.

Environmental groups praised the development as a positive one. The EPA is giving “a continued notice to companies that the overuse of [confidentiality] claims is no longer going to be allowed,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy group.

In a statement to iWatch News, the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing the chemical industry, said: “We support EPA’s mission to promote public understanding of the potential risks posed by chemicals in commerce, while protecting the critical information needed by businesses to innovate and succeed in a competitive international marketplace.  It's important that EPA continue to recognize legitimate claims to safeguard intellectual property from competitors."

For years, government reports and environmental groups have raised concerns with the prevalence of industry claims of “confidential business information” in studies submitted to the EPA detailing potential effects of toxic chemicals.

A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that about 95 percent of the notices companies sent the EPA about new chemicals include some information flagged as confidential.  “Evaluating the appropriateness of confidentiality claims is time- and resource-intensive, and EPA does not challenge most claims,” the report said.

Today’s release of information comes a year after the EPA asked the chemical industry to declassify some information voluntarily, and the agency noted in its announcement that some disclosures were the result of this request.

The EPA has said its general policy going forward will be that, when submitting health and safety studies, companies can’t withhold the names of chemicals already listed on the agency’s public inventory.  But not all chemicals are listed on this inventory.  A 2009 Environmental Working Group study found that there is no publicly available information for about 17,000 of the more than 83,000 chemicals on the EPA’s master inventory.

Concerns over confidentiality claims fit within larger criticism of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which critics have long derided as weak and ineffective.  The law does not require companies to prove their products are safe before introducing them to the market, and the EPA has to clear a high legal bar to limit or ban a chemical’s production.

In January 2009, the GAO added the way the EPA assesses and controls toxic chemicals to its list of high-risk areas needing government attention.  Legislation to reform the 1976 law is introduced regularly in Congress, but it failed to pass again last year.  Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced another reform bill in April.