By Jack Pratt Is Sen. David Vitter, R-La., becoming an environmental champion? No way. That’s why many are understandably wary of a new bill he co-sponsored to overhaul our main chemical safety law. But here’s the twist: This legislation would actually give the federal government significant new powers to restrict chemicals tied to cancer, Parkinson’s and other serious illnesses. In fact, a bill progressive Democrats negotiated with Vitter is our best chance to protect our health from toxic chemicals.
To understand why requires some background. Our main chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, is four decades old and badly broken. Americans are exposed to thousands of chemicals every day in cleaning products, clothing, furniture and many other products. Scientists link common chemicals to a host of serious health problems, and pregnant woman, infants and children are especially vulnerable. Yet only a small fraction of chemicals in use today have ever been adequately tested for safety and the Environmental Protection Agency can’t even restrict chemicals we know are dangerous.
With the feds hamstrung by TSCA, state governments have stepped up and taken action on certain chemicals. Some states have imposed restrictions on chemicals of concern like mercury, BPA and flame retardants; they’ve also passed labeling and disclosure requirements. Some retailers (such as Walmart and Target) have also established restrictions of their own that are reducing the use of some problematic chemicals.
While we should applaud those efforts, they are insufficient. For one thing, these restrictions only deal with chemicals we already know pose risks. States are not checking a chemical before it goes on the market, or requiring safety testing for those already in use. And when states impose a restriction on a chemical, companies often simply replace it with another similar chemical that may be just as harmful (like switching out BPA for its close cousin BPS). And even with all that action, only about a dozen chemicals or classes have been restricted in this way by states in four decades. Finally, state protections are not called a “patchwork” for nothing: huge swaths of the country remain wholly unprotected. This is a national problem and it requires a national solution.
One important benefit of the state and retail actions is that it has been a major headache for business. Chemicals are used to make 96 percent of products and companies now have to comply with different standards in different states, even while they have lost the trust of average Americans. The result is, after years of denial, many companies are now willing to accept more regulation to secure a predictable system that restores confidence in the safety of their products.
That brings us to the new bill before the Senate, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, S 697, named in honor of the late senator who had the courage to seek out a bipartisan path to reform TSCA. The new bill is the result of two years of tough negotiations by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Vitter. Vitter didn’t bump his head and become a liberal, far from it. Rather, he is calling for the “common rulebook” that industry needs, in exchange for greater EPA powers.
Thanks to the Udall-led negotiations, that preemption of state laws is much more limited than in the original bill. Under the new bill, actions states took in the absence of a strong federal system remain intact. Going forward, states can act to restrict a chemical until and unless the EPA takes up the same chemical as a high priority. Other types of state actions on chemicals, such as reporting or monitoring requirements, are not affected.
The other provisions in the new bill give EPA powerful new tools to start dealing with the tens of thousands of chemicals in use today — a problem that is much too big for any state, retailer or individual to handle on their own. The new bill mandates safety reviews of new chemicals before they come on the market, and of all chemicals already in use. It requires explicit protections for the most vulnerable to chemical exposures, such as pregnant women and infants. And it drives more information on chemicals into the open by imposing limits on companies’ ability to hide chemical safety data.
The trade-off is that states will no longer be as free to restrict a chemical once the feds step in. In an ideal world, states would be able to continue to impose their own restrictions even when the EPA acts. But with businesses that use chemicals to make everything from aerosols to airplanes raising the alarm about the challenges that could pose to them, is it any wonder they and their Republican allies in Congress are seeking to limit state actions?
We know what happens in Washington when a bill fails; it takes years to before we get another chance. We saw it with healthcare, climate change, and past efforts to reform TSCA. And there is a real cost to continued federal inaction. Unregulated chemicals are taking a toll on our health, and delayed action means more children will be unnecessarily exposed to harmful chemicals. I don’t blame people for looking at any deal presented by Washington skeptically, particularly one supported by some polarizing figures. But we should look past the names on the bill and take a good deal when we see it.
Jack Pratt is chemicals campaign director at the Environmental Defense Fund and previously served as chief of staff to Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.