A lifetime government job. And if the commissioners at the CPSC grant tihe pending pettion to ban certain flame retardants, the staffers working on the ban will get that wish.
Earlier this month, the commission held a day-long hearing to consider a petition to ban all organohalogen flame retardants (OFT’s) used in children’s products, the plastic cases for electronics, mattresses and pads, and residential upholstered furniture. Petitioners assert that the chemicals making up these flame retardants accumulate in the body and could cause cancer and other chronic diseases. Comments on whether to grant the petition will be accepted until mid-January.
So why does granting this petition guarantee lifetime employment for the staff working on it? First, the breadth of the petition makes for an almost unmanageable task for those trying to write a regulation that would be upheld by a court. The petition is not just asking for a ban of a single substance; instead it includes at least 83 different flame retardants, each somewhat different from the other, and would apply to substances for which risks are undemonstrated and entirely speculative. The product categories are also very broad and would include thousands and thousands of products where exposure to the OFR’s differ one from another. Contrary to the assertions of the petitioners, the statute does not allow for regulation based on speculative harm. And like it or not, the statute does require that any regulation be based on risk and exposure.
In this regard, petitioners draw an analogy to the commission’s regulation of lead, a comparison that is entirely inapposite. Prior to passage of the CPSIA, the agency regulated lead based how exposure contributed to risk of injury. Congress changed that science-based approach and decreed that mere presence, not exposure, was the trigger for regulation of lead. However, for other substances, the agency must still find the existence of a hazard and the mere presence of a substance does not necessarily indicate there is a risk of harm.
Establishing the extent of the risk for a wide class of chemicals as they are used in broad product categories is not the only statutory hurdle that must be addressed. It is entirely unlikely that the ban requested by petitioners would satisfy the cost benefit analysis required both by the statute and by good administrative policy. For example, while barriers, rather than OFR’s, may be an option for upholstered furniture, the costs of implementing that option are extraordinary. And the agency would need to consider the value of the lives saved from fires that were prevented by the OFR’s.
The statute also calls for the creation of a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) when the agency seeks to regulate chronic hazards like those now under discussion. As experience has shown, managing the work of a CHAP will keep a number of staffers working hard for the foreseeable future.
This is not to say that the health effects of OFR’s should not be examined. On the contrary, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority (soon-to-be enhanced under proposed amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act), and has underway activities looking at these substances. TSCA clearly gives the EPA the authority to regulate both these chemicals and their uses and the EPA is doing that. If the pace or outcome of this activity does not satisfy the petitioners, then they should take action at EPA to change that, not go forum-shopping around the government.
This petition illustrates the quicksand the CPSC wanders into when it acts to regulate broad classes of chemicals that may present chronic hazards. The agency is well equipped to address acute hazards but chronic hazards through chemical exposure present very different challenges. Should the agency grant the petition and venture into the regulation of whole classes of chemicals, that action could sink the agency into a quagmire that will keep staff busy for years trying to claw out.