We just got the biggest environmental law in a generation

Diane Regas

Most Americans believe that chemicals in products they buy in the store are approved for safety. But it’s not true. Our clothes, couches, and cleaning products – among thousands of other goods – contain chemicals linked to cancer, Parkinson’s and other serious health problems.

Recently, though, there’s been some very good news. Congress finally reformed the 40-year-old law at the root of our broken chemical safety system. And today, President Obama signed into law the most important new environmental legislation in decades.

Reforms will transform marketplace 

The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976 and never reformed until now, grandfathered nearly 62,000 chemicals without any safety review and passively allowed 700 to 1,000 new chemicals onto the market every year.

This law not only failed to protect Americans from toxic chemicals; it failed to provide the private sector incentives for investing in safer and sustainable alternatives.

The reforms passed by Congress will begin to transform the marketplace.

Under the Lautenberg Act, all new chemicals will have to meet a safety standard. The Environmental Protection Agency will have new authorities to require testing. And it will finally have a legal mandate to review existing chemicals on the market.

While these changes won’t transform consumer goods overnight, the new law will expand information about chemicals and improve transparency, generating more incentives for companies to invest in safer chemicals when designing products.

To see how much the reform of an environmental law can benefit us over time, look at the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. They remain vigorous today, cleaning the air and saving lives.

Citizen activism, retailers drove change

This reform is part of a process that began with citizen activism and greater consumer awareness. Americans have been demanding more information and higher standards for safety when it comes to chemicals they bring into their homes.

Growing scientific insights into how chemicals can disrupt normal development and result in chronic diseases are further raising the bar by which we judge their safety.

For many years, consumer product companies and major retailers have been responding to these rising consumer demands by removing hazardous ingredients and calling for safer alternatives.

More and more companies are applying the principles of sustainability to the chemicals that make up their products, striving for continuous improvement in health and environmental impacts.

Just this year, Walmart announced the first progress report on its Sustainable Chemistry Policy for household and personal care products announced in 2013. The company worked with suppliers to phase out high priority chemicals and reported a 95-percent reduction, by weight, in use.

Big job ahead: Getting all toxic chemicals off shelves

The new law puts in place a purely health-based standard by which chemicals will be judged.

As companies continue to work to meet rising consumer expectations about the safety, health and sustainability of products, this new law will provide a strong foundation to build upon and expand efforts for generations to come.

Moving potentially hazardous chemicals out of the products on store shelves and driving innovations in safer chemicals is a big task. It won’t happen overnight and we can’t expect the government alone to solve it.

Consumers, advocates, companies and retailers all have a significant role to play by demanding safer chemicals and products and striving for continuous improvement by going beyond simple compliance with the law.

The signing of the Lautenberg Act into law today ushers in a new legal framework upon which we can all build a healthier future for all.

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