Congress has utterly failed to effectively regulate the chemical industry, and thus shares responsibility for widespread toxic chemical contamination of people and the environment. In our daily lives we are exposed to hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of chemicals from a wide range of sources, including personal care and cleaning products, food packaging, plastics, children’s toys, furniture, air, water, our workplaces and our neighborhoods. While most Americans believe chemicals are tested for safety, the unfortunate reality is federal law does not require the chemical industry to prove chemicals safe before they can be used in products we come in contact with every day.
Lax government oversight of chemicals has seriously harmed human health. Scientific research reveals exposure to toxic chemicals over the course of a lifetime is linked to a range of diseases like breast and other cancers, infertility, birth defects and asthma. By giving the chemical industry free rein to make chemicals without first ensuring they are safe, Congress made a costly mistake in 1976 when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) became law. That mistake could be remedied now, but only by reforming TSCA with the clear and overriding intent to protect human health.
But at this point, it’s not looking like Congress will do the right thing and show the chemical industry who’s in charge.
Legislative proposals in the House and Senate would actually roll back the meager chemicals management regulations that currently exist. It appears that some members of Congress want to rubber stamp an ossified, decades-old industry playbook that leaves the chemical industry beyond the reach of government oversight and completely unaccountable to the public’s demand for safer chemicals. It’s a big mistake for human health and the planet.
Last year, I and other environmental and public health experts testified before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives, which was soliciting input about how to reform TSCA. My testimony included the latest data about the unconscionable rates of breast cancer, which will strike 1 in 8 women in their lifetimes, and kill 40,000 women this year. I reported on the findings of a federal panel I co-chaired that determined identifying and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer presents the greatest opportunity to prevent the disease. Documentation of the cutting-edge science finding chemical exposure during pregnancy and early childhood is linked to diseases now proliferating in our society — cancer, infertility, birth defects, autism and more — was submitted for the record.
Now that I’ve seen the draft legislation from the House, it’s clear that the reams of testimony recommending increased protections from toxic chemicals to improve public health were ignored in favor of promoting the chemical industry’s wish list for less regulation and accountability. It’s time Congress finally stands up to the powerful chemical industry lobby.
The utter failure of the federal government to take action to protect people from dangerous chemicals has not stopped the growing movement for safer chemicals. In fact, Congressional recalcitrance is having just the opposite effect. The federal leadership vacuum has spurred states, retailers, and manufacturers to create their own rules and standards, which are becoming the new de facto regulatory scheme. During this year alone, 33 states are expected to introduce laws to ban or restrict or force disclosure of certain chemicals. Retailers like Walmart and Target are developing separate policies to eliminate the most dangerous toxic chemicals from store shelves, and major manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble are globally reformulating their brands to stop using certain toxic chemicals.
Retailers and manufacturers claim the driving force for change comes from their consumers, who want to buy safe products that won’t harm their families’ health. The public is demanding increased protections from dangerous chemicals in products and the market is responding.
Will Congress become relevant by leading the way to a new federal regulatory framework that makes protecting public health the number one priority? Or will Congress be sidelined, as the states and marketplace fill the leadership void that anti-regulation forces have created by ignoring the public’s demand for safer chemicals and healthier lives?
Jeanne Rizzo, R. N., is President and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, which works to prevent breast cancer by eliminating exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease.