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Is Your Couch Trying to Kill You?

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Imagine if government officials knew that certain chemicals were hazardous enough to cause health problems as serious as cancer and neurological defects, yet were largely powerless to restrict them.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of chemical regulation in the U.S. On paper, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate or ban toxic substances. In practice, the agency faces so many hurdles that it hasn’t tried to do so since it made an ill-fated run at asbestos in 1991.

More than two dozen states are nobly trying to fill the regulatory void. But Washington cannot abdicate its responsibility to protect public health. U.S. lawmakers should move swiftly to give the EPA true power to assess and regulate risky chemicals.

The agency’s inadequate oversight of flame retardants, as revealed in a recent series of articles in the Chicago Tribune, illustrates the perils of weak federal rules. These chemicals are used in everything from couch cushions to televisions to airplanes, ostensibly to lower the risk of fire. However, the flame retardants most often used in such products are largely ineffective. They exist mainly because the chemical industry has pushed them aggressively.

Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens. Others have been shown to hinder reproduction or to promote obesity, anxiety and behavioral problems. For good reason, they have raised concerns among federal regulators. Yet they remain ubiquitous. It has been nearly 40 years since makers of children’s pajamas stopped using a flame retardant known as chlorinated tris because of evidence that it caused cancer, yet the chemical can still be found in highchairs, car seats, nursing pillows and other polyurethane-foam-filled baby gear.

Flame retardants are showing up in the environment as well -- studies have found concentrations of brominated compounds in the air near the Great Lakes and in wildlife across the U.S. American babies are now born with the world’s highest recorded levels of flame retardants in their bodies.

What keeps federal regulators from acting are weaknesses in the Toxic Substances Control Act: When it passed, in 1976, more than 62,000 chemicals, including several flame retardants, were grandfathered in, allowing them to avoid scrutiny. And, unlike drug manufacturers, chemical companies aren’t required to submit health and safety data before marketing a new product. If concerns are raised about a chemical, the onus is on the EPA to prove it poses an unreasonable risk before it can restrict production or use. The burden is so great that the agency has been able to require testing for only about 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals in its inventory.

When the EPA tried to ban asbestos more than 20 years ago, it assembled 45,000 pages of data documenting how exposure to the substance can damage lung tissue. Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned the ban.

This year, the EPA identified 83 “chemicals of concern,” including several flame retardants, for which it plans to begin risk assessments in 2013.

Protecting public health shouldn’t be this hard. When it comes to chemical safety, Congress should shift the burden of proof from regulators to manufacturers. Substances already in use should not automatically be considered safe.

The Safe Chemicals Act, which was introduced in Congress in 2011, would require companies to submit to the EPA a minimum amount of health and safety data for each chemical they produce, and would ease the agency’s burden to collect any additional information it needs. The EPA would have to classify chemicals by risk and take immediate action to restrict the most dangerous ones.

Given the fractured state of affairs in Washington, states’ efforts to fill the policy vacuum are welcome. New York and New Jersey, among many others, have been discussing efforts to restrict or ban the use of certain flame retardants. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown urged tougher regulations in his state.

But certain chemicals are known to be dangerous to public health in every state. In not stepping in to restrict their production and use, the federal government abandons its responsibility.

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Today’s highlights: the editors on the Moody’s bank downgrades; William D. Cohan on Wall Street’s job creation; Albert R. Hunt on U.S. business’s embrace of Mitt Romney; Simon Johnson on why U.S. banks aren’t ready for a European crisis; Gregory La Blanc on Facebook’s strengths; Sharon Bowles on how the EU manages shared debt.

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