It's time to keep families safe from toxic harm

When Congress passed the original Toxic Substances Control Act, it grandfathered 62,000 chemicals without requiring safety testing. Since then, the government has only partially regulated just five of those original chemicals.

Meanwhile, for the 22,000 new chemicals introduced since 1976, manufacturers have provided little or no information to the Environmental Protection Agency about potential health and environmental impacts. The United States is virtually the only nation in the developed world that does not require a minimum set of data to assess whether these chemicals are safe.

Americans are paying the price for this lax oversight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found we carry dozens of chemicals in our bodies, including chemicals used in flame retardants, stain repellants, plasticizers and detergents. Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, learning disabilities, or infertility. In the years since the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed, our understanding of the impacts of chemicals on our bodies has greatly expanded. We now recognize that chemicals may be playing a role in the prevalence of many diseases in our country. Leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers, for instance, have increased by more than 20 percent since 1975. A woman’s lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is now one in eight, up from one in ten in 1973.
 
Not all of these cases of cancer are caused by toxic chemicals. But a significant number of cancer-causing chemicals are produced in high volumes, and under the current law the EPA can do almost nothing to protect us from exposure to them.

People do not want to be exposed to toxic chemicals and hope that they—or their children—won’t get sick ten or twenty years from now.

Americans deserve a strong line of defense against these dangers, and it is time Congress provided it. We need to determine which chemicals used in commerce are safe. And we need to break free of the legal restrictions and red tape that have prevented the EPA from quickly reducing exposure to those that have strong evidence of harm and widespread exposure.

States will continue to act in the face of stalling at the national level, while public trust in the safety of numerous products will continue to decline. That prospect should be enough to keep all interested parties at the table until we can reach agreement on how to reform this law. NRDC and our partners in the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition are committed to working with individual companies and other stakeholders on these issues.

Congress can pass strong TSCA reform in the 112th Congress. There is no rule that a Republican-led House can’t pass strong public health measures. Indeed, in 1996, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act and enacted the Food Quality Protection Act. Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House and Bob Dole was Senate Majority Leader.

When I testified last Thursday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the need to repair our broken toxics control law, I spoke not just as the president of an environmental organization. I also spoke as a cancer survivor and the mother of three daughters who—like so many other parents—believes it’s time America did a better job of keeping our families safe from toxic harm.


Frances Beinecke is the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.