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Will the Environmental Health Movement Compromise on Chemical Safety Reform?

On Wednesday, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (2013) was introduced in the Senate. It is the latest attempt to overhaul the antiquated and ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act (1976). What makes this bill different from previous Democratic efforts is that this one has bipartisan support. For the first time, Democrats and Republicans have found some common ground. Introduced by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and David Vitter (R-LA), this bill is the result of intense behind-the scenes negotiations and many compromises.

According to its proponents, Chemical Safety Improvement Act  bill will “ensure that all chemicals are screened for safety to protect public health and the environment.”

But many in the environmental health movement aren’t so sure. Although they acknowledge that the bill is a political breakthrough, the concessions made to the powerful “big chem” industry are too large for some to swallow. Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group bluntly declared "we can't support this bill."

Using softer words, the Environmental Justice & Health Alliance said, We are deeply disappointed that those most harmed by failed chemical regulations and those who have worked tirelessly to support industrial chemical protections … will themselves be left inadequately protected.”

Others are more positive. Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund says the bill “gives EPA vital new tools to identify chemicals of both high and low concern, and to reduce exposure to those that pose risks.  And while this bill represents a hard-fought compromise, it opens, at last, a bipartisan path forward to fix our badly outmoded system to ensure the safety of chemicals in everyday use.”  

The new bill marks the latest development in the environmental health movement’s efforts to strengthen toxic chemical legislation in the U.S. The movement’s first victory was the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (1980), otherwise known as Superfund. Passed in response to Lois Gibbs’ and the Love Canal Homeowners Association’s protests about the health effects of a leaking toxic waste dump in upstate New York, it provides EPA with the authority to clean up abandoned waste sites.

Since then, activists have focused on lobbying for toxics legislation at the state and local levels. This strategy made good sense because of the difficulties in getting legislation passed by an increasingly polarized Congress and hostile or indifferent Administrations.  It’s also been an effective approach. Between 2003 and 2011, 18 states passed 71 chemical safety bills and between 1990 and 2009, over 900 toxics policies were introduced or enacted. This year alone, 26 states are considering about 110 different bills and there have already been victories in Maryland, Minnesota and Vermont, with others likely in the coming weeks.

This record of success has put chemical policy reform on the nation’s political agenda, even though the federal government has been slow to respond. In fact, the TSCA is the only piece of federal environmental legislation passed in the 1970s that hasn’t been overhauled. Europe is way ahead of the U.S. and in 2007 its REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances) system came into force. With stringent requirements for chemical manufacturers, it’s significantly tougher than the new bill. 

So what’s the environmental health movement to do? Will it compromise on TSCA reform and get what it can out of a dysfunctional Congress, or will it stick to its principles and continue the good fight? My guess is that the movement will reject the bill’s giveaways to “big chem” and lobby hard for stronger legislation. And by mobilizing its supporters across the country, it may just succeed.

Kate Davies

Kate Davies, MA, DPhil, is author of a new book on  The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement. She is core faculty in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle and clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. She has been active on environmental health for 35 years in the U.S., Canada and other countries.

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