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Cancer is Not a Sound Byte

Every year, millions of U.S. workers are exposed to substances which animal studies and human tragedies have shown are carcinogens. Unfortunately, of those chemicals manufactured or processed in the U.S., less than two percent have been tested for carcinogenicity.

This is particularly alarming since, based on data relied upon by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from four to ten percent of cancers in the U.S. (equalling 48,000 cases per year) are caused by occupational exposures. [1]

Despite these alarming facts, the main federal law regulating chemicals in the United States, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is woefully out of date and ineffective. All Americans, whether in our workplaces, our homes, or when purchasing everyday products, must stop fooling themselves into thinking there is, somewhere, a benevolent power watching out for their safety when it comes to toxic chemical exposures. Outside the specialized arenas of pharmaceuticals and certain ag-chemicals, at the federal level, there simply is no effective authority.

To the credit of the Environmental Protection Agency, however, this is not for lack of trying. For decades after the law’s passage, the EPA strove to rein in some of the deadliest chemicals to which we are exposed every day. Unfortunately, their effort to regulate one of the very worst, asbestos, exposed fatal flaws in TSCA’s structure. Flaws so fundamental in nature that, in fact, of the 80,000 chemicals now on the U.S. market, only five were ever successfully regulated by the EPA using TSCA. Asbestos is not among those five and it has been responsible for many deaths over the history of its use.

So, updating and improving this broken law to match the science of the 21st century, and benefit from the hard-learned lessons of the TSCA experience should be a political no-brainer, right? Well, there again, you’d be wrong.

protecting workersHaving supported the effort to update TSCA for many years, we at the BlueGreen Alliance had been hopeful that the House Energy and Commerce Committee—in the wake of six months of Committee hearings on this issue, following on years of debate over the Safe Chemicals Act and, later, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act in the Senate—would produce forward-thinking legislation to advance the dialogue. However, a discussion draft of proposed legislation recently released by Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus reveals a failed attempt to protect the public from the health impacts of toxic chemicals. Instead this draft, if enacted into law, would roll back even the very limited oversight that we currently have under TSCA.

Among the many problems that the BlueGreen Alliance finds in this draft, this bill would:

  • Annul state laws that provide most of the information that does exist on toxic chemicals in industrial, commercial, and consumer products;
  • Fail to adequately protect workers exposed to toxic chemicals in their workplace;
  • Continue the non-workable TSCA legal standard, as well as impose even more hurdles, further preventing the EPA from regulating even a substance as deadly as asbestos;
  • Make it nearly impossible for the EPA to require health information for new chemicals before they end up on the market for use in our workplaces, and in the products we bring into our homes;
  • Significantly roll back the EPA’s authority to restrict the use of existing toxic chemicals in industrial, commercial, and consumer products; and
  • Require the EPA to weigh the economic benefits of a chemical against its human health impacts such as birth defects, cancer, autism, or infertility.

By ignoring nearly every recommendation for reform made for years by health professionals, environmental experts, worker communities, and advocates for families dealing with cancer, autism, infertility and other health problems linked to chemical exposure, this new draft would adopt a chemical industry “wish list” tailored to ensure regulatory inaction. That such an election year political statement would be put forth—regarding an issue so critical to human health and the environment—simply lacks credibility.

When it comes to toxic chemicals, we are not discussing re-election strategies. We are talking about cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, respiratory disease, and a raft of other human health concerns. In short, we are talking about human suffering—suffering which is within our nation’s power to alleviate if only we can set aside the politics of the moment .

The BlueGreen Alliance opposes this draft legislation, as should anyone who cares about the health impacts of chemicals on American families. This proposed legislation should not be formally introduced as a House bill and, further, an entirely new, serious effort must be made by the full House Energy and Commerce Committee to responsibly legislate TSCA reform.