Resisting the "chemical safety" con game

A con man preys on our perceptions of reality. Even the simple game of three-card monte, a classic street hustle, relies as much on the ability of the huckster to manipulate his observers' perceptions as it does on his skill at sleight of hand. Now, like a street hustler, the chemical industry is hoping that we will be dazzled by their patter when they say that the government's new "chemical safety" rules will protect Americans from their dangerous products.

For years, Congress has promised to update our decades-old federal chemical regulations, yet despite the demands from hundreds of health, environmental, consumer and other public interest groups, the Senate recently adopted a flawed bill that will do little to undo the chemical industry's con game.

As Maria Konnikova wrote in an essay adapted from her recent book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It ... Every Time,

Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like....Even as the evidence against them piles up, we hold on to our cherished beliefs.

The chemical industry knows this dynamic only too well. They have perpetuated the story that the government protects us from unsafe chemicals. They know that for many years most people believed, despite the evidence to the contrary, that the government wouldn't let dangerous chemicals into hundreds of products on store shelves without testing.

But chemical companies are afraid that many consumers are now questioning these beliefs. A spokeswoman for the chemical industry recently told the Wall Street Journal, "There is a problematic perception that chemicals on the market aren't screened for safety."

Note that the chemical industry's problem is that people accurately "perceive" the situation: in fact, chemicals are rarely screened for safety. Our accurate perception of this truth is undermining the industry's ability to twist reality and obscure the very real dangers from their toxic products.


The growing realization that the government is not protecting us from disease-causing chemicals led the chemical industry to an underhanded solution. They created and pressured Congress to adopt new "chemical safety" rules, the first update of our nation's chemical regulations in forty years.

But since perception is paramount, the industry put forth a bill that gives the appearance of strengthening protections for our health, while actually making virtually no changes to stop the flow of toxic products going into our food, air, water and hundreds of products. Thus, it is no surprise that "chemical reform" bill adopted by the Senate this month was loudly applauded by the same chemical companies that have spent decades polluting our environment and endangering our health.

Like observers at a street hustler's three-card monte game, we should be skeptical when a shill walks away loudly proclaiming his prowess as the game's big winner.

By creating phony "chemical safety" reform legislation, the chemical industry wants to create the impression of a strong new safety system, while maintaining many of the worst aspects of the current, outdated rules. They want to convey the impression of a strong new role for the Environmental Protection Agency, while insuring that EPA won't have the funds needed to protect the public. The new bill also gives industry a federal trump card they can use to invalidate hundreds of stronger state-level chemical rules, and gives industry a wedge to use in international agreements to pressure other countries to "harmonize" their stronger chemical rules down to the weaker U.S. approach.

But perhaps most critically, the chemical industry intends to use the new rule to neutralize efforts that major businesses are making in response to consumer pressure to sell safer products. This is no conspiracy theory, but is the industry's stated goal. Following pressure from environmental, health and consumer groups, companies like Target, Walmart, Ashley Furniture, Macy's and many other companies have recently vowed to stop selling many products made with certain dangerous chemicals. As chemical industry proponents told the Journal, they expect that Congress' impotent new chemical safety bill will "stop momentum by retailers and states to ban particular chemicals in consumer products."

Given the likelihood that our government's chemical rules will remain inadequate to protect our children and families, it is more important than ever that we continue pressuring retailers and other businesses to take action to protect us. Time and again such efforts have shown that companies will respond to pressure, even when no laws compel them to act. Recent research shows that even when they make small changes in response to activist pressure, corporations are opening the door to larger, longer-term changes.

So don't be conned when you hear the virtues of the new "chemical safety" bill. Instead, join with the millions of Americans who are standing up for our right to be free from the chemical industry's experiments on our health.