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Working In These Times

Monday, May 16, 2011, 10:23 am

Chemical Industry Regulation Would Create, Not Kill Jobs

BY Kari Lydersen

There are more than 80,000 chemicals used in everyday consumer products in the United States, and very few of them are subject to any significant regulation or investigation. This could change with reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, currently being debated.

Industry groups have railed against stringent reform of the act, saying it will cost jobs. When the act passed 35 years ago it grandfathered in more than 60,000 chemicals which are not subject to its current requirements. Even the current requirements force the Environmental Protection Agency to prove a chemical is harmful before regulating it, rather than forcing industry to study chemicals and prove they are not harmful.

In a recent report, the Blue Green Alliance says TSCA reform would not destroy jobs, but rather could create them in an industry that has already been hemorrhaging U.S. jobs even as its production levels and profits are increasing. The Blue Green Alliance says the act needs to be reformed to protect the health and safety of consumers, the environment and the workers who are exposed to these chemicals.

Regulation will help the industry stay internationally competitive in the future, the report says, since European and other countries have more stringent standards than the United States. And stricter regulation could open whole new markets for safer and “greener” chemicals or alternatives, creating jobs in the process.

The report says:

TSCA reform can make the U.S. a global leader in green chemical production and make our country more competitive with Europe and Canada. Paints made without toxic fumes and plastics made from vegetables instead of oil are two green chemistry innovations that factor in impacts on human health and the environment, can create new job opportunities for American workers, and will prevent products with toxic chemicals from being imported from other countries.

The report indicates strict new standards are the most meaningful way to force the industry to invest more in research and development focused more on safe and ecologically-friendly chemicals, as opposed to churning out known commodities as cheaply as possible, which inherently is bound to mean corner-cutting in protecting consumers and workers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the non-pharmaceutical chemical industry went from providing 807,000 jobs in 1992 to 504,000 in 2010, and it is projected to shrink to 271,000 jobs by 2030 – despite the fact production has been increasing on average four percent a year. 

In other words, the industry is cutting jobs significantly on its own presumably to maximize profits, while complaining that regulation meant to protect human health and the environment will destroy jobs. Automation, streamlining of production and offshoring have been major trends in the chemical industry, raising concerns about even laxer regulations during production as well as the elimination of U.S. jobs. The report says:

In 2008, an estimated 627,100 employees worked producing chemical products in majority-owned foreign affiliates of U.S. companies, compared to total employment within the U.S of 847,100 that same year, including non-pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical chemicals.

And:

If we do not modernize U.S. chemical regulations, the analysis in this report shows that the chemical industry can be expected to continue its current model of competitiveness based on cost-cutting practices that eliminate jobs and minimize innovation…

TSCA perpetuates perverse incentives that hamstring innovation and cause produc¬ers to favor existing chemicals rather than investing in safer alternatives.

Moving toward greener production, which companies can do voluntarily and which they could increasingly be forced to do through stricter regulation, would mean reduced costs in fuel use and waste disposal “downstream” (at the end of a product’s life or for the end-users), the report says. The chemical industry could be greener in terms of their actual manufacturing process for already-in-use chemicals and the types of chemicals they develop and market. The report says:

20 percent of current production were to shift from petrochemical-based plastics to bio-based plastics, 104,000 additional jobs would be created in the U.S. economy even if the output of the plastics sector remained unchanged.

Under a “business-as-usual” scenario without significant regulatory reform, the report estimates – based on Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers  – that Texas, Ohio, California, Illinois and New Jersey, in that order, will suffer the greatest job losses in the non-pharmaceutical chemical industry by 2030.

In a September 2010 report, the Blue Green Alliance also proposed passage of the Miner Safety and Health Act (in the House) and the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act (in the Senate) including reforms of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and added protections for whistleblowers. These measures would be important for workers in the chemical industry, who are disproportionately likely to be in dangerous workplaces or observing practices that put the public at risk.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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