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Dear EarthTalk: What is happening to update and reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which I understand is considerably outdated and actually permits the use of thousands of chemicals that have never been adequately tested for safety? -- Henry Huse, Norwalk, CT
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental research and advocacy organization, upwards of 80,000 chemicals commonly used in the United States have never been fully assessed for toxic impacts on human health and the environment. “Under the current law, it is almost impossible for the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to take regulatory action against dangerous chemicals, even those that are known to cause cancer or other serious health effects,” reports the group.
1976’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was intended to protect people and the environment from exposure to dangerous chemicals. But the standards at that time dictated that only those chemicals deemed an “unreasonable risk” were subject to testing and regulation. When the law went into effect, some 62,000 chemicals escaped testing and most have remained on the market ever since. In the interim, however, we have learned that many of them have been linked to hormonal, reproductive and immune problems, cancer, and a plethora of environmental problems.
And since 1976, an additional 22,000 chemicals have been introduced without any testing for public or environmental safety. Some of the potentially worst offenders can be found in cleaning and personal care products, furniture, building materials, electronics, food and drink containers, and even kids’ toys.
“The law is widely considered to be a failure and, most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own Inspector General found it inadequate to ensure that new chemicals are safe,” reports NRDC, which is not the only group concerned about beefing up TSCA. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition includes more than 200 nonprofits—including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), the Environmental Defense Fund and the Lung Cancer Alliance, among many others—representing a collective membership of more than 11 million individual parents, health professionals, advocates for people with learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive health advocates, environmentalists and businesspersons from across the country.
By banding together, coalition leaders hope to convince Congress to fix the problem by finally updating TSCA and creating the “foundation for a sound and comprehensive chemicals policy that protects public health and the environment, while restoring the luster of safety to U.S. goods in the world market.”
Specifically, the coalition is lobbying Congress to revamp TSCA so that the most dangerous chemicals are phased out or banned outright and that others are tested and regulated accordingly, all the while ensuring the public’s right-to-know about the safety and use of chemicals in everyday products. Also, the coalition is calling for federal funding to expand research into greener alternative chemicals to replace those with known health hazards.
Dear EarthTalk: I saw a TV ad for toilet paper with no cardboard core to save paper. I understand that green groups recently struck a deal with Kimberly-Clark to protect eastern U.S. forests from decimation for, among other things, toilet paper. Can you tell me if any efforts are underway to protect Canada's boreal forest, also long used for making tissue paper? -- K. Douglas, Winthrop, ME
In August 2009, Kimberly-Clark, the paper giant behind the Kleenex, Cottonelle and Scott brands and the largest manufacturer of tissue products in the world, gave in to pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental groups to clean up its act in regard to how it sources its wood fiber and how much recycled content it includes in its products. After various forms of public haranguing from Greenpeace, the company committed to sourcing 40 percent of its North American tissue fiber—some 600,000 tons yearly—from recycled sources or from forests certified as sustainable by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Also, by the end of 2011 Kimberly-Clark will stop buying non-FSC-certified wood fiber from Canada’s vast but fast-shrinking boreal forest—the largest old growth forest on the continent.
One outgrowth of this landmark agreement is Kimberly-Clark’s launch of Scott Naturals Tube-Free toilet paper which, to reduce waste is wound in such a way that it doesn’t need cardboard tubes. The company estimates that the 17 billion toilet paper tubes produced yearly in the U.S. account for some 160 million pounds of trash—most of us discard instead of recycle them. By eliminating the tubes, the company hopes to both save cardboard and allow customers to use every last piece of toilet paper, since the last one won’t have any glue on it to stick to the roll. The tube-free TP is being sold initially at Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the Northeastern U.S. and will be launched nationally and beyond if it catches on with consumers.
Kimberly-Clark’s green awakening will no doubt benefit the tree farms and forests of the Southeast—the locus of logging operations in the U.S. these days—and it will also benefit Canada’s boreal forest, from which the company still sources a large amount of its wood fiber. North America’s largest ancient forest by far, the Canadian boreal forest provides habitat for more than a billion birds as well as many a threatened species, including woodland caribou, bald eagles, golden eagles and wolverines. It is also the world’s largest storehouse of terrestrial carbon—all those miles of trees, moss, soil and peat soak up an estimated 186 billions tons of carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming. Despite its value to the environment, some 60 percent of Canada’s boreal forest has already been allocated to forestry companies for development and less than 10 percent of it is formally protected in any way. Clear-cut logging by Kimberly-Clark and its competitors has claimed half a million acres of boreal forest annually in Canada’s Ontario and Alberta provinces alone in recent years.
“Because of Kimberly-Clark’s place in the paper products market, the company’s new policy will send a strong signal to its competitors, Procter & Gamble, SCA and Georgia Pacific, that creating a policy that protects ancient forests is a key element of sustainable business,” reports Greenpeace. Of course, there are plenty of other brands of tissue paper that already make use of primarily recycled and/or sustainably harvested fiber—check out Greenpeace’s Recycled Tissue and Toilet Paper Guide to find out which ones—but they are not easily found at mainstream grocers and big box stores. The more shoppers go for greener options, the more the paper industry will take notice and modify their offerings accordingly.
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