The War Between Joe Q. Public and Private Industry Over MSDS and Chemical Disclosures

A quiet battle is being waged between some companies, the government, and the public over how much information the public is entitled to in regards to the chemicals companies use, to which the public may be exposed.

Some companies are reticent to share information about the exact formulas or make up of their chemical products because they view that information as proprietary and believe their market advantage hinges on its secrecy. On the other hand, those fighting for full disclosure believe that the public’s right to information about chemical exposure trumps any expectation of privacy to which the companies may feel entitled.

This latter group is hungry for information and is aggressively pursuing all of the information it can find about the chemicals companies are using. Case in point: a recent MSDSonline blog post about the material safety data sheets (MSDS) of the dispersants being used in the Gulf oil spill cleanup effort quickly became one of our most trafficked articles.

Reading MSDSs is almost no one’s idea of a good time, so the large number of people looking for the dispersant’s MSDSs on our blog suggests that people are eager for information that will help them come to their own conclusions about the relative safety of the chemicals being used in the Gulf.

In fact, prior to the official release of the dispersants' MSDSs, several sources on social networks like Twitter had posted information about the MSDS of the suspected chemicals online.

Another example of the tension between companies and the public over disclosure is found in an excellent article by Mike Soraghan, posted on E & E Publishing’s website, about fracking - the process oil and gas companies use to flush out natural gas from shale formations underground.

In the article, Soraghan details the lengths to which some groups and lawmakers are going, to demand the chemicals used in fracking be made public. Interestingly, the companies involved in the battle say they too are for disclosure; they just have a different opinion as to what constitutes disclosure.

According to the article, these companies say they have disclosed the pertinent information in the form of MSDSs posted at the worksites.

However, this does not appease those who feel the MSDS don’t measure up because the MSDSs are designed for workplace safety and not for informing the public of environmental hazards, and because companies do not necessarily have to include information on the MSDSs they regard as trade secrets.

Posting of MSDSs at the worksite do not appear to go far enough for some lawmakers either. Soraghan mentions pending legislation in the Senate and House that could require companies in the natural gas business to post MSDS and/or chemical information online for public access.

Determining how to balance the competing interests of industry and the public is something that will take time; nevertheless, it is almost certain that technology and the online deployment of MSDSs will continue to be a major part of the story.