The announcement by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg that he would not seek reelection in 2014 is bittersweet. He is a longtime champion of protecting public health from toxic chemicals and will be missed. But before leaving, he promises to push through sweeping changes to our nation's toxics laws—a goal long-sought by Earthjustice.
In the last Congress, Sen. Lautenberg and 29 other senators sponsored the Safe Chemicals Act. The bill would revise and update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our nation's primary chemical "safety" law that is fundamentally broken when it comes to protecting our health from dangerous chemicals. TSCA has essentially remained unchanged for 35 years, despite a dramatic increase in chemical use and applications.
The Safe Chemicals Act would improve the safety of chemicals used in consumer products, increase public information on chemical safety, protect our most vulnerable populations and communities, require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use the best available science to determine chemical safety, and support innovation in the chemical industry to find safer alternatives.
Under the Act, the EPA would have to immediately address the worst chemicals: persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury. Communities of color and low-income communities disproportionately impacted by these toxic chemicals would finally see much-needed protections.
The Safe Chemicals Act passed in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee despite vehement opposition by chemical manufacturing industry representatives and Senate Republicans. Among a parade of committee witnesses, they were the only ones who insisted that the industry should not have to prove whether its products are safe for pregnant mothers, unborn children and others. Sen. Lautenberg will reintroduce the Safe Chemicals Act in this Congress, and his commitment to pass this legislation before his retirement gives new hope to meaningful protection from toxic chemical exposure.
Meanwhile, Sen. David Vitter (R-La) is working with the big chemical companies to forge a TSCA "reform" bill more to their liking, meaning it is apt to be heavy on rhetoric and light on reform. Congress should not be fooled by any sham reform. For 35 years, toxics laws have remained idle while more chemicals and new applications continued unchecked. In order to reduce our risks for cancer, neurological impairment, developmental disabilities and many ot her health impacts, we need stronger, comprehensive changes to the law contained in the Safe Chemicals Act.
Written by Martin Hayden. First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Spring 2013 issue.