Last week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened a six-hour hearing on toxic chemicals. The committee discussed our current chemicals law, known as TSCA, as well as a bill, proposed in May by Senators David Vitter and the late Frank Lautenberg, aimed at reforming TSCA. It was an important day in the fight to protect families from toxic chemical exposure. One thing all 19 (!) witnesses agreed on: TSCA isn’t working. New chemicals are not tested for safety before they are registered for sale, which means that we can buy toxic chemicals right off the shelves, without even knowing it. Even chemicals that we KNOW cause harm – such as carcinogenic asbestos – can’t be banned under the toothless TSCA. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of this massive regulatory debacle, now 37 years old. Will the new Lautenberg-Vitter bill fix these problems? Most of the panelists at the hearing expressed serious concerns with the bill as drafted, including witnesses from Moms Clean Air Force partners Breast Cancer Fund and WEACT for Environmental Justice. In their words:
“Congress has a moral imperative to pass legislation strengthening the way chemicals are regulated to provide the public real protection from dangerous chemicals. TSCA does not meet that goal. CSIA in its current form [the Lautenberg-Vitter bill] does not meet that goal. But creating workable and health protective legislation is doable. While we understand that compromise is always part of the legislative process, we must not compromise public health.” ~ Nancy Buermeyer, Breast Cancer Fund
“So why is a guy from Harlem, New York before you today to talk about the Toxic Substances Control Act? The answer is simple. Chemicals have impacted my health, the health of my family members and some of my neighbors.” ~ Cecil Corbin-Mark, WEACT for Environmental Justice
Over and over, witnesses asked for the following changes to the Vitter-Lautenberg bill:
- Ensure adequate protections for vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, children and hot spot communities
- Preserve the authority of state governments to act on toxic chemicals.
- Require adequate data on chemical safety, so the EPA can properly prioritize chemicals.
- Include deadlines and timetables to ensure the EPA is meeting appropriate benchmarks.
- Remove red tape on the EPA before restricting the use of dangerous chemicals (learning from the lessons of existing TSCA and asbestos).
Daniel Rosenberg, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, presented an excellent summary of what’s wrong with the bill and why it needs to be fixed. In his words:
“The bill as currently drafted has fundamental weaknesses that would prevent it from enhancing chemical safety. [But] we are willing to work to improve the bill. The CSIA has opened the door to developing an effective bill that could garner broad support. [We do] not want to walk by that door or slam it.” ~ Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
Senator Barbara Boxer is chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee and presided over the hearing. Her overriding concern, expressed throughout the marathon of a day, was whether the Lautenberg-Vitter bill would effectively dismantle California’s unique and stringent Proposition 65, a program that labels toxic chemicals in consumer products sold in California. Senator Vitter made it clear that he had no intention of undermining Proposition 65 and committed to addressing that concern in subsequent drafts of the bill. It wasn’t all pure, harmonious bipartisanship, though. Several witnesses praised the Lautenberg-Vitter bill as it currently stands, and encouraged its passage without changes. These included a representative from Dow, a Toy Industry Association guy, and a couple of corporate lawyers. In other words, the chemical industry and its allies want the Lautenberg-Vitter bill passed without revisions.
It was exciting to listen to this historic hearing (and tweet about it too). The Senate has moved from the question of whether TSCA needs to be replaced – we all can agree that it does! – to how to replace it. The groundwork has been laid for protecting our children from toxic chemical exposures.
The brilliant and passionate, Linda Reinstein, whose husband died of cancer from asbestos exposure, reminded the Senate what’s at stake with her heartbreaking description of her husband’s death. Then she told Senators Boxer, Vitter, and others:
“The tons of asbestos that have been mined in and imported to the U.S. have created a public health crisis. Asbestos remains in our homes, schools, and buildings, and even on consumer shelves…Do you know where these nearly invisible, deadly fibers are in your home, in your car, on consumer shelves, or here on The Hill?” ~ Linda Reinstein, Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization
The answer is that we don’t know where they are, because our federal law does not require it. That’s unacceptable. We need a law that can identify and eliminate this and other toxic hazards for breathers everywhere.