States Lead the Action for Toxics Policy Reform
April 30, 2013
Our lives and our bodies are permeated by toxic chemicals. The toxics come at us, and into us, from fuels and industries, pesticides and paint – and increasingly from the products we buy and bring into our homes: Plastic drinking bottles. Sofas. Carpets. Soup cans. Shampoo. Cosmetics.
Carcinogens in cosmetics? Obesity-inducing chemicals in soup cans?
For those not engaged in chemicals policy advocacy – most people, in short – this is unthinkable. Surely there’s a law that provides at least basic protection in the products we use so intimately?
If that’s what we assume, we are wrong. One reason chemical exposure is so widespread is that no federal law requires that chemicals be tested for toxicity before they enter the marketplace – and our bodies. Nor does the law require that chemicals that cause cancer, or developmental delays, or disruptions to the endocrine system, be flagged on labels. The federal law that addresses chemicals in non-food products, Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA, is essentially toothless. Although some 700 new chemicals are introduced into commerce each year, TSCA does not require manufacturers to evaluate them for safety. In fact, with more than 80,000 chemicals in use today, fewer than two percent of them have been evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency for health impacts.
Consumer advocates, environmentalists and some federal lawmakers have been pushing urgently for TSCA reform for years. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey has introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, which would provide needed modernization of U.S. chemicals management. But legislative efforts to protect us from toxic chemicals have, like so many efforts, fallen prey to Washington’s gridlocked party politics. No one expects to see federal legislative relief any time soon.
Successful legislation from the states
That being the case, more and more toxics safety advocates have turned to the states to protect consumers, and successful drives have brought reforms in some 20 states over the years. A report by the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR) documents just how active state legislatures have been in addressing toxic chemical pollution. Entitled “State Chemicals Policy: Trends and Profiles,” the report cites more than 77 bills that have been passed by states in recent years to restrict individual chemicals, including 31 bills related specifically to mercury.
The movement for state-level action is championed by “Safer States,” a coalition of activists who have come together to promote, strengthen and pass state laws to protect citizens from toxic threats. It is a part of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a similar coalition that focuses on passing national chemical policy reform. According to Safer States, as of spring 2013, 15 states were considering legislation to ban bisphenol A (BPA), a common additive to plastic thought to disrupt normal hormone levels and development in fetuses, babies, and children, affect the brain and behavior of infants and young children, and according to some animal studies, increase the risk of certain cancers. Safer States also lists 12 states debating the safety of brominated flame retardants, which research suggests may affect thinking and learning abilities, reproductive development, and thyroid functioning as well as cause liver tumors.
State action: Significant
Some have questioned the efficacy of laws that address just one substance or class of substances, in only one state, when so many chemicals are known to be hazardous and tens of thousands have never been tested. Here are three reasons why state-level reform is significant.
First, it protects health, at least locally. Given the serious effects that can result from exposure to hazardous chemicals, these laws can make a critical difference for health, especially in vulnerable populations such as babies in utero, infants and young children.
Second, when states pass laws that protect their populations from chemicals in products, they demonstrate that legislative reform is feasible. They also reveal the deep local support for effective action. By modeling the types of reforms that could be passed by Congress, these wins help build the momentum for federal-level reform.
Third, the burgeoning movement for state-level toxics policy reform sends an important market signal to producers. Manufacturers who sell their products in many states are keenly sensitive to the clear signs of rejection that emerge from chemical bans and phase-outs (to say nothing of the negative publicity). Producers also face another problem when local restrictions are placed on chemicals: The cost of reformulating their products to comply with regulations that vary from state to state cuts into profits. These market pressures, if they build sufficiently, may persuade producers that a uniform federal law is not such a bad idea after all, if it replaces the patchwork quilt of differing state-level regulations.
More comprehensive approaches
Actually, the strategy now emerging from the states goes well beyond substance-by-substance phase-outs to more comprehensive approaches. Some states are focusing on disclosure requirements, so the public is assured of more transparency in regard to potential exposures. Others are pushing for wording in the legislation to require that producers don’t replace a toxic chemical with something equally bad or worse when they phase out a dangerous substance. The NPPR report cites the emergence of state criteria for “environmentally preferable” purchases which help reduce toxic chemical use and hazardous waste generation – part of a move at the state level to embrace “lifetime management solutions” to prevent the use and release of toxic chemicals, rather than exclusive reliance on “end-of-pipe” cleanup. Yet while these more comprehensive approaches to chemical management are spreading, the report notes that “restrictions on specific hazardous chemicals remain an important policy tool.”
From cumulative to synergistic
As chemical policy reform victories mount up, their impact goes from being cumulative to synergistic. Information and strategies are shared from state to state. Successful policies are held up in other localities as models for reform. Activists feel encouraged and emboldened. Discrete local efforts begin to coalesce into a broader movement for toxics reform – one that can build power in the states for health-protective toxics policy at the federal level.