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This CEO Says Congress Hasn’t Done Enough on Toxic Chemicals

June 15, 2016, 11:00 PM UTC
John Replogle
John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation, speaks during a #ComeClean Rally in support of AB 708 at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. The bill would require manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose their ingredients on their label and websites, including those that could have adverse health effects.(Steve Yeater/AP Images for Seventh Generation)
Photograph by Steve Yeater--AP Images via Seventh Generation

The U.S. will more carefully regulate thousands of toxic chemicals found in everyday household products if a bill is signed by President Obama, as expected. The first overhaul of the nation’s 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, the bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency to test and regulate 64,000 chemicals found in everything from laundry detergent to carpeting and furniture.

Most chemicals on the market have never been tested because they were being produced before the law was passed in 1976. The bill sets higher standards for vulnerable groups like pregnant women, infants, and chemical workers, while imposing fees on chemical companies for the testing. If the bill is approved, the Environmental Protection Agency will oversee the process and will examine 20 chemicals at a time with a deadline of seven years per chemical, and any EPA ruling would trump state-level rules.

Legislators have hailed the legislation, as a rare display of bipartisan support. Many public health advocates and environmentalists, who have campaigned for reform, say the bill doesn’t go far enough. Their chief complaint: Although the EPA would be given more authority to test more chemicals, it’s at a pace far slower than necessary. “It is a step forward, but we needed four steps, not one,” said John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation, an environmentally-focused household products maker, also a member of the Companies for Safer Chemicals, which has been lobbying for chemical safety reform.

In an interview with Fortune, Replogle talked about what the law would accomplish — and what it wouldn’t.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve campaigned actively for reforming the law. Why is it so needed?

Today, there are over 80,000 chemicals available and tens of thousands in use, and very few of them have ever been tested. While most consumers go about their day using hundreds of chemicals, most of them also go about with the assumption that the government has actually reviewed and regulated these, which is inherently not true. At least what we’re beginning to do is come to the realization that there are chronic toxicants, what we call PBTs–persistent bioaccumulative toxins–in use every day.

So, assuming Obama signs the bill, how will it affect consumers?

It does some good. It does protect the most vulnerable populations: the EPA now has authority, and they shifted the cost-benefit standard. We’d still like to see that go a lot further. Human health ought to be the driver, not cost benefit. The EPA is now going to be able to act on a limited number of what we call the bad actors, these PBTs. Those are substantive but not adequate improvements.

Why isn’t it adequate?

Where we need to go much further is allowing states the right to make their own legislation. States vary greatly in terms of what chemicals are used and the laws. Effectively states are going to be locked in to where they are currently and won’t be able to lead forward. Historically, states have led the federal government in these areas, and good state legislation has been great for our country and has advanced human and environmental health issues. Unfortunately, states are now going to be handcuffed.

We also think that there’s a lot further that we need to go in terms of some other measures. I won’t give you an exhaustive list, but we didn’t go far enough on animal rights. [Seventh Generation wanted legislation that would require animal testing be used only as a last resort after other testing methods have been exhausted.] We’re disappointed in that for sure.

The bill continues to allow companies to withhold details about manufacturing processes and formulas if they deem it proprietary or confidential.

This notion of CBI, confidential business information, is really offensive. The idea that companies can hide behind this notion of CBI is just absolutely putting the interests of companies ahead of consumers.

The American people deserve better, and our Congress owes it to our people to put the interests of Americans ahead of companies and they’ve failed to do so in this. We are passionate about this notion of transparency. We think consumers have a right to know, and we are going to continue to work hard and advocate for disclosure, particularly for ingredient disclosure.

The bill doesn’t require cleaning products to label ingredients. Call me naive, but I didn’t realize that cleaning products don’t have an ingredient list and still won’t with this new bill.

Shockingly and sadly true. I think with all due respect, you are not alone.

Some of the strongest chemicals we use in our home are underneath your sink. They’re in your cleaning products. Yet, consumers can’t even understand what’s in their products. Companies are allowed to hide, and we think that’s wrong.

Can you imagine today if we didn’t have ingredients on food? Yet, ingredient disclosure on food is still recent within the last generation or so. We can’t imagine ever going back and not having ingredient disclosure on food. We have ingredient disclosure on beauty and personal care products, as well. In the cleaning industry, there is no requirement for ingredient disclosure. We think that is wrong.

I would add this, too, research says 78% of consumers want transparency. They want ingredient disclosure. They want to know what’s in their products. So, we’re not talking about the desires of the fringe or your hippie mom. We’re talking about nearly 80% US consumers who would like to see this happen.