The nation's new chemical safety law promises to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expanded authority to regulate hazardous chemicals in consumer products. But of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market, most never tested for safety, which should the EPA tackle first?
Today, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a list of high priority chemicals the EPA should act on quickly. It includes chemicals in products Americans use every day—detergents and household cleaners, clothes, mattresses, furniture, toys and even kids' jewelry.
The Environmental Working Group released a list of high priority chemicals the EPA should act on quickly.
"After decades of stagnation, EPA can now ban or restrict the use of toxic chemicals and order companies to conduct safety testing when more information is needed," EWG senior scientist David Andrews said. "It's important that the agency act promptly to eliminate or reduce Americans' exposure to industrial compounds linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption and other health problems."
For many chemicals on the list, action is long overdue. For example, many Americans believe asbestos—a carcinogen that claims 12,000 to 15,000 lives each year—was banned decades ago, as it has been in 55 other nations. But U.S. industry still imports, uses and sells asbestos and asbestos products, including automobile brake pads and clutches, vinyl tile and roofing materials.
With so many hazardous chemicals in use, any list of those posing the greatest risks would be subjective and incomplete. But the vast catalogue of chemicals that have never been evaluated for safety make it urgent for the EPA to move quickly to tackle the backlog. The agency put 90 chemicals known to pose health risks on a list called the TSCA [Toxic Substances Control Act] Work Plan.
"The work plan list represents opportunities for assessment and regulation where EPA action is overdue," EWG senior scientist Johanna Congleton said. "In some cases, such as with some kinds of flame retardants, the initial EPA review was hindered by the lack of safety and exposure data. EPA must now use its expanded authority to fill in these critical information gaps."
EWG scientists scrutinized the chemicals on the work plan, analyzed studies by U.S. and international researchers and consulted fellow experts in environmental health. They considered each chemical's health risks, how widely Americans are exposed to it and the likelihood of EPA action under the new law.
Here are the 10 chemicals EWG urges the EPA to thoroughly review and regulate as soon as possible:
The cancer-causing substance is still found in automobile brake pads and clutches, vinyl tiles and roofing materials. While some uses have been banned since 1989, no new risk assessment is scheduled.
This probably carcinogen appears in dry-cleaning fluid, spot removers and water repellents.
These chemicals are linked to early puberty in girls and other reproductive harm. They show up in PVC plastic, toys and plastic wrap.
This carcinogen is also linked to infertility, developmental harm and diabetes. BPA is used in food cans and other food containers and cash register receipts.
5. Chlorinated phosphate fire retardants
These chemicals turn up in upholstered furniture, foam cushions, baby car seats and insulation. They are linked to possible nerve and brain damage.
6. TBBPA and related chemicals
This potential carcinogen and endocrine disruptor is seen in electronics, auto parts and appliances.
7. Brominated phthalate fire retardants
These chemicals are linked to developmental toxicity and appear in polyurethane foam for furniture and baby products.
This probable carcinogen is used in aerosol cleaners and adhesives and linked to reproductive harm.
This probable carcinogen is found in plastic wrap and PVC plastic. It is also linked to developmental toxicity.
This probable carcinogen is detected in moth balls and deodorant blocks. It is linked to liver and nerve damage.
EWG, from EPA's 2014 TSCA Work Plan
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.