By Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., Nancy Buermeyer and Janet Nudelman
After years of debate and negotiations, the United State Senate just passed legislation amending the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) for the first time since the original bill became law in 1976. Unfortunately, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act does not meet the promise of true TSCA reform and, as a result, the Breast Cancer Fund opposes the legislation.
While some Senators worked tirelessly to make the bill stronger, the resulting incremental changes, in the end, simply did not go far enough. The sad truth is that we did not have the Senate champions we needed to block the American Chemistry Council — and other industry lobbyists – from convincing policymakers that a weak bill, that would fail to significantly reduce exposures to chemicals linked to an increase risk of breast cancer and numerous other adverse health impacts, was good enough.
The Senate legislation contains numerous harmful provisions. The compromise bill:
- Does not shift the burden of proof – from the public to prove harm – to industry to demonstrate the safety of their chemicals;
- Pre-empts state legislative action to protect their citizens from chemicals that the EPA has identified as potential harmful while the EPA goes through a laborious safety determination process; and
- Undermines the EPA’s ability to protect consumers from toxic chemicals in imported products. Most of the toys parents are purchasing this holiday season are imported.
By way of background, almost from the moment it became law, it was clear that the Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976 was going to fail in its stated goal of protecting the public from toxic chemicals. The almost four decades since enactment has only solidified that analysis: out of 85,000 chemicals registered for use in commerce, only 5 have been regulated and the EPA was not even able to ban the notoriously dangerous chemical asbestos.
In the face of this complete breakdown of any viable federal protection, consumers, public health and environmental advocates, as well as an impressive number of states, retailers and manufacturers, have stepped up to the plate to attempt to fill this gaping hole in regulating the safety of chemicals. The pressure of these efforts has led to a broad call for reform of this broken law that forced even the chemical industry and its trade association, the American Chemistry Council, to the table. However, it has become crystal clear that public health advocates and the chemical industry have VERY different definitions of, and goals for, “reform.”
The promise of TSCA reform has always been to give EPA the authority, responsibility and resources it needs to protect the public from exposure to toxic chemicals. Truly meaningful and health-protective TSCA reform would:
- Shift the burden of proof to industry to demonstrate the safety of their chemicals; Protect the most vulnerable and/or most exposed to toxic chemicals;
- Address the misuse of confidential business information by lifting the veil of secrecy on the identity of chemicals;
- Maintain the historic role of states to protect their citizens from unsafe chemical exposures, often at a higher level than the federal government, as is the case under other environmental laws; and
- Create a workable and efficient system to ensure the safety of chemicals by providing the EPA sufficient authority and resources to quickly assess and regulate chemicals, particularly the known “worst actors” (such as asbestos and persistent, bioaccumulative toxicants or PBTs).
The chemical industry’s vision of “reform” that emerged however is a very different one. They want legislation that would:
- Pre-empt, or override, the ability of states to ban or restrict dangerous chemical exposures;
- Counter rising public concern with false assurances of chemical safety; and
- Hamstring the EPA from effectively regulating chemicals by limiting resources and creating endless red tape.
The legislation that passed the Senate fulfills these industry goals for TSCA “reform,” while falling short of the kind of chemicals management that the public wants and deserves.
If Congress follows “regular order,” the next step is a House/Senate conference committee that will reconcile the differences between the Senate bill and the House passed TSCA Modernization Act. The Breast Cancer Fund also opposes the House legislation due its significant, although somewhat different, flaws. How the conference committee does its job, taking the best or the worst of both bills, will make a significant difference in whether or not the final bill will make some progress toward protecting the public from dangerous chemicals. We urge the conference committee to send the strongest possible bill back to both the House and Senate and ultimately to President Obama for final approval.
Given the politically charged process to date, public health advocates have reason to be concerned about the outcome of the conference committee. Throughout the legislative process, the Breast Cancer Fund has advocated for real, health protective reform of this critical law. We will stick to our principles and continue to work vigilantly on the provisions of the bill that can and need to be made stronger.
We will also continue to educate consumers, pressure the market to make safer products, and advocate at the state level for truly meaningful and health-protective chemicals management policies. In short, we will pull all the levers available to get the toxic chemicals that are harming and killing us out of the products and environment we are exposed to each and every day.
Depending on the final bill, we may again be calling “foul,” but regardless we will not be calling “uncle.” The Breast Cancer Fund will continue to carry the voices of the women, men and children that are being negatively impacted by breast cancer on a daily basis as we advocate for a strong and health protective TSCA reform bill.
“We must eliminate chemicals that are poisoning us from the shelves of our supermarkets and drugstores.” Marika Holmgren, breast cancer survivor