For the first time in 36 years, the U.S. Congress took a significant step towards fixing the ineffective law that primarily governs the use of toxic chemicals in America’s workplaces, homes, schools, and almost every other facet of our everyday lives. This is a monumental step, not just for the U.S., but for public health around the globe.
Since the 1970s, the public’s demand for sensible public health precautions has grown. When the U.S. Congress adopted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, over 60,000 chemicals were presumed to be safe for human health and the environment (some 20,000-odd additional chemicals have since been added to TSCA’s inventory of chemicals). This decision was made at a time when, as some of you may recall, one could generally smoke in the workplace, restaurants, airplanes, and other confined public spaces. Congress gave some power to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to eliminate the manufacture and use of dangerous chemicals under TSCA, but the law’s provisions and their interpretation have handcuffed the Agency. In fact, the EPA has only been able to ban five existing chemicals since TSCA was enacted using the laws provisions.
Time has shown how wrong and dangerous this presumption of innocence is regarding chemical safety. A recent series in the Chicago Tribune about toxic chemicals illustrates the unbelievable story of how chemical manufacturers and the cigarette industry are collaborating to infuse furniture and children’s products with toxic flame retardants that do not even accomplish their intended purpose, to slow the pace of fires.
Toxic chemicals, many used in everyday products, are shown to have adverse effects that may include cancer, mutations and abnormalities in the reproductive system, immune disorders, diabetes, obesity, autism, learning disabilities, developmental delay, and others. Many of the toxic chemicals linked to these adverse effects were grandfathered in under TSCA, but some were not. In the case of those that were not grandfathered in, i.e. “new” chemicals, EPA must make a prediction about the hazards and risks of these chemicals using available information—but chemical manufacturers are not required to generate this information if none is available.
The evidence of industrial chemicals traveling around the globe through wind, water, animals and trade, coupled with the evidence of these chemicals entering our bodies, circulating in our bloodstream, passing to unborn children in the womb, and imposing lifelong effects, shows that chemical pollution is a global public health issue. Recognizing that the chemicals policies of the 1970s are grossly inadequate to protect human health and the environment, countries and regions around the world—for example Europe, Canada, Japan, and South Korea—are implementing new policies to require basic information about the hazards of all chemicals, and to place the burden of generating this information on chemicals manufacturers.
Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee took a historic step by voting (10-8) in favor of the 2011 Safe Chemicals Act, paving the way for full Senate vote. Senator Lautenberg’s proposal not only allows the U.S. to finally break free of ‘70s era chemical policies, but also to ratify a key international agreement—the Stockholm Convention—that restricts or bans the use of 22 very dangerous chemicals, including toxic flame retardants. Chemicals listed under the Stockholm Convention do not degrade, accumulate in living organisms and are toxic in many ways. CIEL’s analysis of the 2011 Safe Chemicals Act shows that the proposed legislation would allow the U.S. to ratify the Convention, but more importantly, to be a leader at the global level when it comes to protecting human health and the environment from toxic, dangerous chemicals.
A Senate vote in favor of the 2011 Safe Chemicals Act will send the right message to the U.S. public about Congress’s commitment to protecting the health of workers, women, children, low-income communities, and other populations especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals. And, the message would be heard beyond the American borders.