Closing in on Chemical Reform

Building on the momentum of “stroller brigades” across the country and the Safer States coalition uniting behind reforming the nation’s chemical legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act has finally emerged from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Some 28 states are considering toxics legislation this year, as awareness about the threats of hormone-disrupting chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and flame retardants have gained prominence. But this is the first time that a national act to update the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) has made it out of committee. When it passed, TSCA grandfathered in about 61,000 chemicals that were then in U.S. commerce. Now, there are about 82,000. According to a 2009 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken measures to restrict production of just five chemicals under TSCA. It has only required testing of 200 chemicals.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has been at the forefront of the chemical legislation reform effort, introducing similar legislation each year since 2005. “Children and families could be in danger from everyday consumer products, and the U.S. Government is virtually powerless to do anything to make sure that the chemicals used in products are safe,” Sen. Lautenberg said in a press release following the late July committee vote. “For too long, the chemical industry has deceived the public and the government about the safety of their products. They have ripped a page out of the tobacco industry’s playbook. Today we are saying ‘game over’ – it’s time to protect the public health.”

The Safe Chemicals Act comes in direct response to a new understanding of the harm caused by common toxic exposures—even in miniscule amounts during critical windows of development—and their direct relationship to rising rates of cancer, obesity, learning disabilities, reproductive disorders and autism. The act would force manufacturers to disclose information about the health and safety of their chemicals or be restricted from sale. It would compel the EPA to take immediate action to reduce exposure to the worst chemicals. It would increase transparency to consumers and spur the creation of safer “green” chemicals—those that function without harming the environment or human health.

In order to see the bill make the progress it has this year Lautenberg was forced to make certain of its provisions more industry friendly. In particular it would now allow companies to continue to put new products on the market without thorough safety testing, though, adds an article in the Chicago Tribune, “the Environmental Protection Agency would get more authority to screen chemicals and require studies of potential health effects.” The American Chemistry Council spent $10.3 million lobbying against last year’s version of the bill, according to the Tribune.

Even the many public health and environmental groups cheering the bill’s advancement know they have a long, difficult battle ahead. “Our goal is to have a vote on the Safe Chemicals Act on the Senate floor this year,” writes Lindsay Dahl deputy director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families in a blog post. “Most cards are stacked against us…” She encourages supporters to call their senators, alert their friends via social media, send emails to legislators and/or write a letter to their local paper.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and an expert on the connection between environmental toxins and children’s health, said in a recent interview that change at the federal level is going to be slow. “We need to be very patient at the federal level and understand that it’s an effort that will likely take a number of years to accomplish,” he said. “But in the meantime we need to broaden the conversation about the hazards of chemicals and about the need for the legislation. That will educate the public and policy-makers. Then at the same time, we need to be pursuing other, complementary strategies. One approach is to work at levels of government besides the federal level – at the state, city or county level – and to work with various actors such as governors, mayors, state legislators and attorneys general. Some of our successes at these levels include bans on bisphenol A in certain counties and states, labeling requirements, and local laws of many different types to regulate and restrict the use of toxic pesticides.”