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How Does the Government Decide When a Product or Substance is 'Dangerous'?

It is a positive thing that people are becoming more concerned about what we bring into our homes and put into our bodies, especially when certain products and substances endanger our personal health and/or the environment. Over the past few decades, health and special interest groups have been on a mission to ban or levy stricter regulations on defective products and substances that pose such threats.

But what steps does the government take to decide which products and substances are safe, and which are harmful? This process is much more complicated than you might think, especially since the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee introduced new legislation in April 2015 to begin working on changes to our nation's regulations on dangerous chemicals.

BPA – A Case of Toxic Concern Gone Wrong

Protecting citizens from toxic products and substances is much more complex than simply banning an item that is considered dangerous to the public, as the recent case against BPA illustrates.

An academic study recently found that product manufacturers might actually perpetuate the concerns customers have about certain products, leading them to make uninformed purchasing decisions. This finding specifically refers to Bisphenol A (BPA), its substitutes and how labeling affects consumer choice.

BPA is a chemical in plastics and resins used to line cans. There has been a movement the last few years to remove BPA from plastic bottles over fears that the chemical could leech out into the fluids inside. Although the effect of BPA is still being studied, the FDA (along with the European Food Safety Authority) discovered that it poses no threat to humans "under normal usage conditions."

Unfortunately, in order to remove BPA from the equation, some manufacturers have switched to untested alternatives that may also be harmful if consumed – perhaps even more than BPA. Moreover, in order to ensure they are purchasing a BPA-free product, consumers were willing to buy products with chemicals they would have otherwise never purchased.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the among the only U.S. laws that enforces standards on manufacturers about monitoring the environmental and health impacts of their products' chemical composition, which is why reforms to the TSCA should be closely scrutinized.

For example, in 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sought to remove asbestos from automotive brake pads. However, in their rush to protect American consumers from toxic asbestos, they neglected to test whether non-asbestos brakes would be adequate for automobile safety. As an appeal in Fifth Court Circuit determined, the EPA ban on asbestos not only increased automobile fatalities, it was also unnecessary because the substance was already being well-regulated by another government agency.

Under the TSCA, the government cannot ban one substance without proving that consumers will be safer with an alternative.

Flame-Retardant Chemicals: A Grey Area

Another product that has caused intense debates during the TSCA reform hearings involves flame-retardant chemicals. While it's true there are concerns as to whether fire-retardant chemicals are safe for human health in the long term, these concerns are counterbalanced by the fact that flame-retardant chemicals have saved countless lives.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2013 alone there were 1.2 million reported fires which resulted in 3,240 deaths and roughly 16,000 injuries. How many more deaths and injuries would there have been had there not been any fire-retardant chemicals on furniture to slow or prevent additional fire damage?

In the years ahead, these and other important questions will have to be answered by the government through the reform of TSCA.

Even with all the safety tests that the FDA, EPA and other organizations put products through before approving it for public use, mistakes are made and dangerous products slip through the cracks.  If you or a family member are injured by one of these defective products or a toxic chemical, please schedule a free consultation with a Tennessee product liability attorney at Gilreath & Associates today.

Please browse our blog and Tennessee Personal Injury Guide to find other information about personal injury litigation, defective product recall alerts and much more.

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