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An article in the Washington Post this morning offered some startling revelations about the protections to which chemical companies are entitled to protect their profits:

Of the 84,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States — from flame retardants in furniture to household cleaners — nearly 20 percent are secret, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, their names and physical properties guarded from consumers and virtually all public officials under a little-known federal provision.

The Post continues and explains that

The policy was designed 33 years ago to protect trade secrets in a highly competitive industry. But critics — including the Obama administration — say the secrecy has grown out of control, making it impossible for regulators to control potential dangers or for consumers to know which toxic substances they might be exposed to.

While this news is certainly disconcerting, what is really frightening is whether the public could learn enough about these chemicals to protect the public health. In discussing a nurse who became deathly-ill when treating a patient covered in a chemical substance, the Post reported the following:

Weatherford [the manufacturer of the product in question] provided safety information, including hazards, for the chemical, known as ZetaFlow. But because ZetaFlow has confidential status, the information did not include all of its ingredients.

Mark Stanley, group vice president for Weatherford’s pumping and chemical services, said in a statement that the company made public all the information legally required.

"It is always in our company’s best interest to provide information to the best of our ability," he said.

The question is what did Weatherford do to help this nurse recover? Why didn’t they disclose all of the ingredients in the chemical? What if the doctor treating this nurse needed to know ALL of the ingredients? Did they go beyond what was "legally required" to make sure that the individual did not succumb to the poison? When push comes to shove, would Weatherford or some other chemical manufacturer disclose the ingredients and chemicals in its products to protect individuals, or would it protect its profits over individuals and their families?

It is hard to know who or what can protect the public from these mystery poisons. As one environmental researcher explained,

"You have thousands of chemicals that potentially present risks to health and the environment," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that documented the extent of the secret chemicals through public-records requests from the EPA. "It’s impossible to run an effective regulatory program when so many of these chemicals are secret."

One thing we have learned over the past few years is that many corporations cannot be trusted to do what is right. If government regulation isn’t sufficient, what or who is protecting our families from these dangerous chemicals? The only defense we have–the only threat to these chemical companies–is the open-door of America’s civil justice system.

So next time you hear someone talking about limiting lawsuits or closing the court house door, remember that sometimes the fear of having to answer to a jury is the only defense our families have from powerful corporations.

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