Only 10 weeks left to pass chemical safety reform

Richard Denison

When I first began working to help fix America’s broken chemical safety law, it was already decades old. Now it is approaching 40 – well past retirement age for a law that cannot ensure the safety of common chemicals.

An update seemed a remote possibility until last year, when senators introduced the first bipartisan, albeit flawed, reform bill. Unfortunately, 12 months later, Congressional inaction risks squandering that opening and the improvements to the bill made since it was first introduced. 

The time for patience is over. Congress needs to finish the job and pass a strong chemical safety law in this Congress, lest the opportunity be lost for another decade or three.

Before I started on this issue, I had been working with consumer product companies to identify both potentially harmful chemicals in products such as cleaners, air fresheners, food packaging and plastics, and safer replacements.

But I kept running into the same problem: We knew very little about the health and environmental impacts of most of the ingredients in those products, especially whether they posed a risk of producing chronic health effects from long-term exposures.

We still don’t.

Scrutinize all chemicals before use

The root of the problem is the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which has so hamstrung the Environmental Protection Agency that the agency faces major challenges even to require that companies provide the most basic information about the safety of their chemicals. That means we fail to learn not only which chemicals pose risks, but also which chemicals are actually safe or at least safer.

So when it comes to replacing a problematic chemical, we run the risk of simply replacing the devil we know with one we don’t.

We can’t get off this toxic merry-go-round without a systematic evaluation of all chemicals. When bisphenol A – better known as BPA – raised concerns, for example, state governments, retailers and consumers all clamored for its removal. It was banned in some places in some products, and largely disappeared in other applications.

Unfortunately, scientists are now finding the common replacement, bisphenol S (BPS), may pose similar health concerns.

It is a sad story that has been repeated many times. Only a comprehensive approach to chemical safety will allow consumers—and manufacturers—to select safer chemicals with confidence.

A year has passed, now it’s time to act

The good news is that last year at this time – on May 22, 2013 – senators introduced the first bipartisan legislation to fix the Toxic Substances Control Act. The bill would for the first time direct EPA to review the safety of all chemicals in use.

It would provide stronger powers to require testing of chemicals and require an affirmative safety finding before new chemicals could enter the market. And it would limit the ease with which companies can claim safety information to be confidential and ease the restrictions on sharing confidential data about chemicals with state governments and health professionals.

However, that bill also put a number of serious roadblocks in the way of EPA effectively using its new powers, and placed excessive limits on states’ authority to regulate chemicals. Since its introduction, some members of Congress have been working in good faith to improve the bill and win broader support.

A 10-week window  

But now, time is running short: Congress has only 10 weeks of work scheduled before the elections.

Americans deserve a system that works. Families shouldn’t have to wonder if the products they buy are safe. Our kids shouldn’t be treated like lab rats subjected to untested chemicals.

It’s been one year since Congress took the first real steps in decades toward chemical reform. We’re counting on them to finish the job and protect Americans from toxic chemicals.