Skip to main content

Historic Week for Safer Chemicals and Healthy Families

Andy Igrejas

By Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director

As you may have heard, the first vote on overhauling our outdated chemical policies in 36 years is now scheduled for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this Wednesday. The stakes for the vote are very high and what happens around it may determine whether we have reform anytime soon.

Before then, however, the committee is holding an oversight hearing today about toxic flame retardant chemicals, an issue brought to light by the incredible reporting of the Chicago Tribune. It’s worth reading the story if you haven’t, but here it is in a nutshell: three major chemical companies ran a campaign for years that distorted the science in order to win government regulations that require the use of their chemicals in furniture and other products in the name of fire safety. The campaign was successful and as a result nearly every home in North America has these chemicals, called PBDEs, which are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic.

The Centers for Disease Control have found PBDEs in nearly every American– including all the pregnant women– it has tested under its world-class biomonitoring program. And women pass the chemical onto their children when they’re born. The chemicals don’t effectively retard fires, by the way, they just make them more toxic- a particular problem for firefighters, who’ve found that it adds to the hazards of their occupation. Retired California firefighter Tony Stefani who runs an organization that supports firefighters with cancer is expected to make this last point at the hearing.

You could not ask for a more vivid example of why this industry cannot by trusted to police itself and why chemical policy is not some esoteric or abstract debate in Washington. The effects are real: American children born with a toxic chemical!

It also speaks volumes about the politics within the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council (the industry’s leading trade association) has treated the scandal with a shrug bordering on a smirk. They’ve blown off separate requests from our campaign, state firefighter associations, and state legislators to address the behavior of the companies in light of the industry’s supposed ethical code, Responsible Care.

Instead they’ve reaffirmed a central role for the former CEO of Albemarle- the leading maker of the chemicals at the center of the scandal- as chair of the executive committee that sets policy on chemical reform.  While the facts around the flame retardants are themselves alarming, there is something even more unsettling that the broader industry could defend and even embrace this immoral behavior.

And this attitude bears directly on Wednesday’s historic vote. Because while ACC has circled the wagons to defend the flame retardant makers, they’ve launched an aggressive campaign to isolate and punish those in industry who have worked to find a way forward on broader reform. Several veteran lobbyists have told me they’ve never seen anything like it.

Privately, ACC says they are waiting for next year, and the possibility of a Romney administration or a Republican Senate. Publicly they want to enforce the line that by moving forward on his bill on Wednesday, Senator Lautenberg is somehow committing an unconscionable act of partisanship. Having watched the ACC up close and having put in a lot of time working with companies on a potential compromise, I believe they are straddling the different views of their members by publicly saying they support reform while pulling out all the stops to keep it from happening, at least this year, and perhaps ever.

What is Senator Lautenberg’s response? To his enormous credit, in the face of the ACC smear campaign, Senator Lautenberg is being a statesman. The version of his Safe Chemicals Act that he is expected to bring forward will have been extensively re-written to reflect the input he has received from companies and trade associations over the last year. Some of the input came from a bi-partisan process he held with Senator Inhofe last summer and fall. Some of it reflects the results of more in-depth dialogues that our campaign’s experts held with major chemical companies and with formulated product companies respectively. (Senator Lautenberg and Senator Vitter jointly requested a summary of the former.)

The changes are expected to include a streamlining of the information requirements to respond to industry’s recent experience with Europe’s chemical law, as well as changes to confidential business information and the process for new chemicals.

But the bigger point is that these are not actions of someone looking for a partisan “wedge” issue.  Senator Lautenberg is looking toward his legacy. He wants to actually DO something and knows that that means compromise. The changes in the legislation represent an olive branch, an invitation of sorts, to Republicans and industry to further negotiate a reform of our broken system with the urgency that the issue deserves.

Some are already willing to roll up their sleeves, like Senator Olympia Snowe, who wrote in a letter to the Committee on Friday: “I am ready to join you in finally modernizing TSCA.” To their credit, Senators Inhofe, Vitter, Alexander and Crapo have all put in some time on the issue recently. We hope they can use Wednesday as a springboard to further action.  If they do, they can be sure they will have the support of Americans from across the political spectrum.

Take action today!