Families Across the Country Demand Safer Chemical Legislation

On Nov. 10, families across the country will march with strollers to ask their senators to support chemical safety legislation to protect children from chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, asthma, and other serious illnesses.

There are more than 80,000 chemicals used in commerce in the United States today, and many have not been tested for safety. Scientists have linked exposure to toxic chemicals to a wide array of health risks, such as cancer, learning disabilities, birth defects, and reproductive problems. These chemicals are found in toys, furniture, electronics, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, food containers, and clothing. For instance, nearly 72 percent of crib mattresses contain dangerous chemicals (see related article in today's edition of The Watcher). The growing prevalence of chemicals in products, coupled with limited oversight and testing, has led many to call for improvements to our nation's out-of-date chemical protection laws.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faces significant limitations in its authority to test and appropriately regulate the numerous chemicals constantly entering the marketplace. Members of Congress have proposed legislative remedies to bolster EPA’s authority in this area, but the measures have not yet been enacted.

The Stroller Campaign

The family-oriented campaign, known as the "Stroller Brigade", is organized by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 280 public health, parent, environmental, and community organizations. It will feature activities such as letter writing, sign making, and parents with strollers walking to their senators' offices to hand-deliver letters supporting safe chemical legislation. Children ages two and up will dress in red capes to ask their senators to "be their heroes" by showing leadership and protecting them from harmful toxic chemicals.

The brigade will be held in the following cities: Long Beach, NY; Newark, DE; Little Rock, AR; Fullerton, CA; Omaha, NE; Providence, RI; Norfolk, VA; Anchorage, AK; and Knoxville, TN. A previous and well attended stroller brigade, held on Aug. 10, took place in 17 states.

Chemical Safety Reform Needed

The EPA does not have sufficient authority to address the continual growth of chemicals in use, making it practically impossible to protect public health and the environment. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), the nation's primary and outdated chemical safety law, quickly proved itself inadequate in regulating chemicals and ensuring products are safe. The law got off to a terrible start by immediately exempting 62,000 chemicals in commerce at the time from any safety review. The law is written in a way that prevents EPA from requiring testing for all but about 200 chemicals. The testing resulted in partial restrictions on the use of five chemicals. In fact, under TSCA, the burden of proof falls on the EPA to prove a chemical poses a health risk, rather than on the chemical companies to prove the safety of their products.

A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that TSCA’s weaknesses have allowed chemical companies to hinder the EPA’s attempts to finalize chemical health assessments and delay regulation of chemicals, such as trichloroethylene, or TCE, and formaldehyde, sometimes for decades. The chemical industry has successfully blocked agency action by attacking early drafts of health assessments; forcing new or more reviews; and introducing new industry-funded studies to confuse the process of evidence gathering when assessments are close to final.

Safe Chemicals Act of 2011

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S. 847) in April to increase chemical safety, improve consumer access to information on chemical hazards in products, and protect vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities, children, and pregnant women. The bill would require safety substantiation of chemicals before they are placed in consumer goods, such as baby cribs and household cleaning products.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Require companies to submit minimum safety data for each chemical produced, with the industry bearing the legal burden of proving the chemicals are safe;
  • Allow the EPA to prioritize chemicals based on risk into one of three classes – immediate risk management, safety standard determination, and no immediate action. The highest risk class receives the highest priority;
  • Enable the EPA to ensure protection of vulnerable populations that may be particularly susceptible to chemical exposures, such as children, developing fetus, or to disproportionately high exposures, such as low-income communities living near toxic facilities; and
  • Create an electronic database to provide public chemical safety information, including pre-manufacture notices, safety testing, and agency decisions.

If enacted, these provisions would likely benefit agencies, consumers, and businesses. Requiring chemical companies to submit health data before marketing a new chemical gives the EPA a more comprehensive starting point for oversight and frees up resources to pursue restrictions on the most dangerous chemicals. Greater access to information allows consumers to make more informed choices. And while business will have some increased costs associated with providing the new health data and could face additional restrictions on some chemicals, the process should result in increased public trust in their products and protect them from lawsuits.

Among the legislation's changes are several provisions aimed at reducing claims of confidential business information (CBI), which currently allow companies to demand that health and safety information of common chemicals be withheld from the public and medical professionals. The legislation would limit the conditions under which the industry can claim CBI:

  • All CBI claims would have to be justified up front;
  • EPA would be required to review all CBI claims, and only approved claims would stand;
  • Approved claims would expire after no more than five years, except for types of claims for which EPA determines the five-year term would not apply; and
  • Workers and local and state government officials would have access to CBI, so long as they protect the information’s confidentiality.

Recently, the EPA has taken small steps to limit what TSCA information can be claimed as CBI and to ensure that only legitimate claims are granted such protections. Public interest groups have lauded these actions, as well as the proposed bill’s ability to further limit CBI claims. Many of the bill’s CBI provisions were recommended in the environmental right-to-know report An Agenda to Strengthen the Right to Know, drafted by OMB Watch and endorsed by more than 100 organizations.

Public Reaction

The bill has received widespread support from public interest advocates, medical associations, and business groups across the country. "We need a new law to put commonsense limits on toxic chemicals … to protect American families," said Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. "The Safe Chemicals Act is a win for both public health and the economy. Smart businesses want to help make reform happen because it’s in their financial interest to make safer, healthier products," Igrejas added.

A coalition of nearly 2,500 small businesses from across Maine called on the state’s U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, to support the Safe Chemicals Act. "No business wants toxic chemicals in the products or packaging on our shelves," said Nate Libby, executive director of the Maine Small Business Coalition. Betsy Lundy, owner of the Center Street Farmhouse in Bangor, ME, says that the bill "allows me to look at the information out there and decide, ‘Yes, this is something I personally feel comfortable having in my store and putting my name behind.’"

The Toxic Action Center, a public interest group, and the Main Small Business Coalition recently released a survey on market transparency and product safety; 88 percent of businesses surveyed want policies that ensure full health and safety testing of all chemicals in commerce.

Even chemical groups, such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC), acknowledge that TSCA needs to be updated. In a press statement, the ACC expressed its commitment to modernizing the act but expressed concern "about how [the bill] may impact America’s manufacturing base." Cal Dooley, the ACC’s president and CEO, said the new legislation "may be legally and technically impossible to meet."

Next Steps

Lautenberg and advocates predict that the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 will be marked up by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by the end of 2011, despite Congress's current partisan divide and chemical industry opposition.

No similar legislation has yet been introduced in the House, and the Energy and Commerce Committee, which would have jurisdiction over chemical reform legislation, has not held any hearings on the subject this year. However, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, did include consideration of TSCA on the committee’s agenda.

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