This blog is by Michael Mignano, Research Assistant, and Anthony Tyrpin, Legislative Intern for the BlueGreen Alliance.
Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works brought us one step closer to reforming our dated chemical safety law — the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 — with the passage of the Safe Chemicals Act. Introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D), the act would shift the burden of proving chemical safety from the government to the companies that create these chemicals, empower the EPA to regulate chemical exposures, and make chemical safety information publicly available. As Sen. Lautenberg noted during the bill's markup today, the Safe Chemicals Act would ensure that chemicals are "tested in industry labs not our children's bodies."
The 10-8 vote to move the legislation out of committee and to the Senate was along party lines despite the broad appeal of stricter chemical regulation to voters. Recent polling shows 74 percent of voters are “concerned about the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals in day to day life,” while “68 percent of voters indicate support for stricter regulation, with support across the county and evident among all demographic sub-groups… including majorities of GOP voters… and even groups typically opposed to government regulation, such as self-described conservatives (54 percent) and Tea Party supporters (51 percent).”
Since the passage of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, over 22,000 chemicals have been brought to market with little to no required safety testing, with another 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in without any requirements. As such, we’ve been testing a cocktail of toxic chemicals on ourselves, our children, and our environment; the results are startling. We’ve seen increased rates of asthma, childhood cancer, and autism, as well as early signs of puberty in young girls. Some chemicals previously thought to be safe have been linked to breast cancer, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and a series of other chronic illnesses.
The BlueGreen Alliance supports these efforts to reform our failed chemicals policy, and knows that safer chemical production will save and create thousands of American jobs.
Today’s vote followed an extensive hearing yesterday on “oversight of EPA authorities and actions to control exposures to toxic chemicals” attended by BGA intern Anthony Tyrpin. Below are his observations.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing Tuesday to discuss the need to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), an act that has been largely unchanged since it became law in 1976. TSCA was passed to ensure the safety of chemicals used in the United States and mandated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protect the public from “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” Much of the recent attention given to TSCA reform can be attributed to a series of reports released by the Chicago Tribune over the past year highlighting dangerously high levels of flame retardants found in household products. These chemicals are used in everything from carpets to crib mattresses and studies have linked them to child developmental disorders and certain strains of cancer. Not only are these chemicals linked to medical problems, but studies have also found these chemicals to be ineffective in actually preventing fires. Currently, companies can use undisclosed chemicals on consumer products with little to no regulation. Under TSCA, the EPA is limited to regulating these chemicals only after their negative health effects have been observed. Regulation under TSCA takes years and has failed to adapt to the quickly changing chemical industry. Jim Jones, an Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA, discussed a class of flame retardants first used in 1995, that are just undergoing risk assessment next year, a full 18 years after consumers started to come in contact with these products; meanwhile, these chemicals have been outlawed in several states already.
The Safe Chemicals Act would require that chemical companies prove the safety of their products before allowing the American public to come in contact with them. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chair of the committee, expressed her opinion that this is common sense to test a chemical for safety before it would be released, and that most Americans probably believe this happens already.
Hannah Pingree, the former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, testified before the committee as not only a former lawmaker, but as a mother concerned for her children. She quoted a study that found, “blood levels of widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004” and that American babies are born with the highest concentration of flame retardants in the world.
In 2004, at age 30, Mrs. Pingree had her blood analyzed as part of the study “Body of Evidence,” and she was disturbed to learn that she had dangerously high levels of phthalates, mercury, flame retardants, and other chemicals known to cause harm. She noted that she has been a resident of a small offshore island with no industry her entire life, and stated “Without a doubt, most of the chemicals in my body came from products and furniture in my home, personal care products, and the food I eat.”
Regulations have been adopted in 30 states since 2003 to limit the public’s exposure to dangerous chemicals, but these provisions are not as powerful as the Safe Chemicals Act. Only when the EPA is given authority to regulate chemicals nationally can Americans be confident the products they buy will not hurt them.
Perhaps the most interesting moments of the hearing, was when Republican committee members left before the second panel could testify, abandoning their witnesses without any support.
These witnesses supporting the chemical companies testified that their products protect consumers and that they are safe at levels people would normally be exposed. Sen. Boxer told the chemical companies that the current process needs to change to protect the American people.
In her closing question, Sen. Boxer asked each witness if they thought chemicals must be proven safe for pregnant women, infants, and children before they can be used. All witnesses — except those representing chemical companies — agreed this would be the logical rule. This rule could protect lives without harming the economy.
TSCA is arguably the weakest of U.S. environmental laws and reform is necessary to allow the EPA to protect Americans from dangerous chemicals in products they use every day.