Public health focus can save chemical reform effort

While Senate and House committees dig into chemical policy it is important to remember the point of reform: protecting public health. The connection between common chemicals and health problems such as infertility, cancer, learning disabilities, and autism is what has grabbed the public’s attention. It is why 22 states have passed chemical restrictions of some kind. It is why major retailers and manufactures are starting to restrict hazardous chemicals. It is why Europe reformed its own policy years ago, setting the global standard to which the world now looks. And yet, in the debate so far in Congress, public health is often left out. That has to change or Congress won’t make progress on this critical issue.

The recent debate was jump-started by the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, introduced by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). The bill initially raised hopes and created momentum for reform but closer inspection revealed it was critically flawed. The rollbacks in the bill far outweighed the reforms. The major recommendations of the pediatricians, obstetricians, National Academy of Sciences, and other respected bodies were ignored. The critical legal issues that doomed the current program were left unresolved. The result is a bill that restricts state action on chemicals, but also guarantees EPA won’t be able to do much either, and what it does manage to do won’t withstand public scrutiny.  This critique –broadly shared by the health, medical, and environmental community- has blocked action on the bill.

The imbalanced approach in the CSIA appears to be rooted in outdated thinking: that industry gains when regulators lose. So why not keep EPA mired in red tape and restrict states too if you can get away with it?

The answer is credibility. The chemical industry is not trusted by the public to regulate itself .The recent HBO documentary- Toxic Hot Seat- told the story of the Pulitzer-nominated team at the Chicago Tribune that uncovered a decade and half –long campaign by the chemical industry to mislead the public on flame retardant chemicals. The direct result of the campaign is the widespread use of known toxic chemicals in most couch cushions and other products for the home. The CDC has documented widespread exposure in Americans, including the breast milk of nursing mothers. Firefighters are saying the chemicals contribute to higher rates of cancer among them because they are heavily exposed to smoldering furniture.

So the industry isn’t trusted and shouldn’t be. But the public has also awakened to the fact that the federal government isn’t on the case. Consumers have started taking matters into their own hands – shunning certain products. Manufactures and retailers have often been caught in the middle, unknowingly selling or making a product with a problematic chemical and then suffering the consumer backlash and resulting business uncertainty. Some have stepped up with their own policies to prohibit certain chemicals in what they make or sell.

Transparently phony reform won’t solve these problems for business. In fact, just the opposite. For a brief period, the chemical industry itself seemed to get this. Its published principles don’t call for the kinds of rollbacks and tricky legal maneuvering you find in the CSIA. Yet it is the presence of these provisions- and the absence of critical health protections- that is blocking action on the bill right now.

The good news is that the path forward politically is also the path of putting public health front and center. Any bill should embrace, rather than ignore, the recommendations of mainstream medical and scientific communities. It should empower EPA and states to identify and restrict the chemicals linked to the health concerns of millions of American families.

Anything less won’t be credible and - just as importantly- won’t happen.

Igrejas is director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 450 health and environmental organizations, businesses and unions.