Companies are using potentially harmful chemicals — and keeping them a secret, too. How’s this legal? So long as companies claim the chemicals are a trade secret, neither the names nor the properties of the chemicals need to be released, except to a handful of Environmental Protection Agency employees who aren’t allowed to share that information.

This means nearly 20 percent of chemicals in commercial use in the U.S. are kept secret — despite the fact that many of them could cause “substantial risk” to people’s health and the environment, according to the manufacturers of the chemicals themselves.

That news comes from Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which published a research report last month detailing the secrecy protecting potentially harmful chemicals from public scrutiny. The root of the problem is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which allows companies to keep even the mere existence of their chemicals a secret by claiming that public knowledge of their chemical could hurt their bottom line.

EWG calls this toxic “trade secret” loophole a “de-facto witness protection program” for chemicals, pointing out that “a large number of these secret chemicals are used everyday in consumer products, including artists’ supplies, plastic products, fabrics and apparel, furniture and items intended for use by children.”

In fact, The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton points out that 151 of the secret chemicals “are made in quantities of more than 1 million tons a year and 10 are used specifically in children’s products, according to the EPA.”

Layton tells the story of one Colorado nurse who got seriously ill after being exposed to a secret chemical. Doctors called the chemical manufacturer to learn more about the chemical — to find out the company wouldn’t disclose some of its ingredients, as releasing that information wasn’t legally required. The nurse recovered, but still doesn’t have the full story behind what made her sick.

The news is depressing, but there is hope! For one, the Obama administration has already ended confidentiality protection for 530 chemicals that had been disclosed by manufacturers on their websites or trade journals, according to The Washington Post. In addition, Congress is expected to tackle this toxic issue this year, hopefully passing something much stronger and more effective than the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

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