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Voluntary Chemical Safety Testing: Beyond blanket opposition to controlling the process

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In 1989, the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) launched an international program to test chemicals. Rather than oppose it outright and incur the wrath of the public and the government, CMA announced conditional support for the program. This announcement was a public relations and strategic coup, allowing the industry to claim credit for accepting voluntary testing while giving it a key role in determining how that testing would occur.

Immediately upon announcing support for the OECD initiave, CMA laid down a series of conditions it said "the OECD program must meet for continued CMA involvement." Not surprisingly, the criteria called for long delays before implementation of even this voluntary testing program.

As on the domestic front, the central part of the OECD delay strategy was an insistence on "a screening approach to chemical testing." (view entire document) This was important because screens are not the same as full scale toxicity tests and will only serve to identify a problem for further study. By demanding an approach that could "not be used for regulatory control purposes," the industry managed to implement the same Catch-22 that makes TSCA meaningless: a preliminary study to study the need for the proposed study, with criteria that make it highly unlikely that the real study will ever happen.

A 1990 update on the OECD program lists the criteria for companies to disclose data that "may reduce or obviate the need for further testing." (view entire document) The key for the industry was to do all it could to establish a go-slow approach to testing. All the while, of course, industry representatives could claim to support the main international chemical testing program.

CMA had reason to believe in the effectiveness of this delay and volunteer strategy. A 1981 memo proudly declared that an industry task force "met with representatives of the FDA and successfully delayed" restrictions on a toxic chemical called DEHA. "The [task force] is currently preparing a detailed review of DEHA toxicity data and developing a voluntary testing program which FDA could accept in lieu of an interim regulation of ban on DEHA." (view entire document)

Self-regulation has long been a mainstay of the industry's anti-regulatory strategy. A confidential 1972 memo acknowledges that the appearance of corporate responsibility is the industry's best public relations tool.

Quoted Text
(view entire document)

The key to understanding CMA's support for voluntary testing is that such a program is "flexible." (view entire document) A 1986 memo on the "Revision of TSCA Test Standards" illustrated the industry's opposition to "enforceable test standards."

[The intent of these revisions is]"to provide more explicit guidance on the necessary minimum elements for each study. . . CMA comments reflected several concerns. If these proposed revisions were made final, the 'guidelines' would become enforceable test standards whenever they were incorporated in chemical-specific test rules. Such a move from reasonable flexibility to a standardization stance is inappropriate . . . " (view entire document)

Proposals to impose "enforceable test standards" scared the industry because they threatened new oversight, which would undermine the entire rationale of voluntary testing: industry control of the agenda and the science. The industry admits as much in a 1992 document, noting that voluntary testing can "allow CMA to advocate a more flexible approach for providing health, safety and environmental information to regulatory agencies and others, [and] potentially avert restrictive regulatory actions and legislative initiatives." (view entire document)

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last updated: march.27.2009

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