Will the new Congress protect us from toxic chemicals?
November 20, 2014
A few weeks ago I presented to a group of community health workers (CHWs) on the connection between poor health and toxic chemicals. These CHWs work in clinics, hospitals and community-based organizations in Washington, D.C. and see patients who have long-term chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, asthma and HIV. Many of their patients live in debilitated housing, infested by insects and rodents, located near polluting industries. Many work as mechanics, hair dressers or domestic workers, jobs which can expose them to high levels of hazardous substances. We discussed concrete ways to reduce exposure in the home, when controlling for pests in an apartment, or when buying food or shopping for toys, furniture or cosmetics. But we also talked about how we can’t shop our way out of this problem. Ultimately we need policy change that, by keeping toxic chemicals out of our products and our lives, can reduce the risk of chronic diseases for all families and individuals, across the board.
Prospects for chemical policy reform in the new Congress don’t look too promising. Efforts to reform the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) in the House of Representatives ended in July, when partisan disagreement halted consideration of the Chemicals in Commerce Act. That wasn’t such a bad development from PSR’s perspective; the proposed bill was not health-protective (read our analysis of it here). However, it was apparently pressure from industry and not from the health sector that led the process to break down.
With that bill off the agenda for now, we turn our attention to the Senate’s TSCA reform proposal, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA).
U.S. Senate: faltering policy reform efforts
The CSIA as introduced has been opposed by public health and environmental advocates, including PSR, as worse than current law and a threat to public health. A revised version of CSIA was expected to be released by Senators Vitter (R-LA) and Udall (D-NM) in early September. This draft was expected to respond to many of the public health and environmental concerns brought up by the original bill. However, it is unclear whether the Vitter/Udall legislation is still in play because Sen. Vitter renounced his own draft, while Sen. Boxer (D-CA), Environment and Public Works committee chairwoman, released her own version of the Udall/Vitter proposal.
The current Udall/Vitter draft includes modest improvements over the bill’s original version. However it still falls short in reducing toxic chemical exposures and protecting public health, and for certain measures would be worse than TSCA’s inadequate standard: The bill provides a slow timeline for EPA’s review of chemicals; it requires EPA to review only a handful of chemicals at a time and fails to earmark funding for EPA to conduct an adequate review of those few chemicals; and it imposes sweeping preemption of state chemical reform law.
Some public health and environmental advocates believe the Boxer proposal could be the basis of negotiations for true chemical safety reform, as it attempts to address the major health and safety concerns with CSIA while also making compromises to industry. The Boxer draft offers a number of positive elements. It puts forth a workable schedule for reviewing and restricting high-priority chemicals; provides a funding mechanism; expedites action on the worst chemicals, and makes the safety standard health-based, similar to what is in place for pesticides, while allowing costs to be considered in risk management measures.
Also on the positive side, the Boxer draft opposes preemption of state toxics reform legislation. However, discussion of preemption was to be taken up after the other major issues were ironed out between Udall, Vitter and Boxer. Thus, it remains a difference still to be resolved between competing versions of the bill.
On the negative side, Sen. Boxer’s draft does not require chemical manufacturers to submit a minimum amount of information for chemicals, and Boxer allows chemical identities to be kept secret under certain circumstances. Both of these are significant concessions to industry; the need for a minimum data set and chemical disclosure is on the list of “must-have” fixes for many public health advocates.
Stand-alone bills: progress, or too piecemeal?
Stand-alone chemical reform bills also exist in the current Congress. These include legislation to ban BPA in food and beverage containers; eliminate ten toxic flame retardants in children's products and upholstered furniture; expedite action on Persistent, Bio-accumulative, and Toxic (PBTs) chemicals to phase out their use from most applications within five years; and to develop a framework for sustainable or “green” chemistry. It is unclear which of these stand-alone bills will be reintroduced in January in the new Congress.
In the current contentious political climate, what is the best way forward for chemicals management policy reform? Should the focus be on a paired-down version of TSCA reform? Is that an acceptable stance, given that the reforms may be inadequate? Or should we continue to nibble away at reducing exposures by banning single chemicals or classes of chemicals? While that approach may be successful, is it overly piecemeal and slow? Another alternative arises in market-based campaigns, such as the efforts to get major retailers like Walgreens and Toys R Us to disclose product ingredients, rid their products of hazardous substances, and develop comprehensive chemical policies. Is that a savvier approach, given the gridlock here in Washington? Market-based campaigns have achieved some success recently in getting manufacturers to start disclosing ingredients for example, SC Johnson will list all fragrance ingredients in its products. But is that really sufficient?
‘Can’t shop your way out’
In the end I come back to the CHWs, their patients and their reality. You can’t shop your way out of this problem. The burden of proof should be on the chemical manufacturers and retailers to provide us with chemicals and products we can use in our daily lives without getting sick or suffering bodily harm. To achieve that degree of security, we need to push for truly health-protective toxics policy. That means we continue pushing for reforms both small and large, fend off attempts to pass policies that impede progress and set us back, and keep on insisting that our health is paramount, until we get Congress to take action that protects us.