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Memo to House: Stand Firm on States’ Rights

To: House of Representatives
From: Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families
Date: May 11, 2016

Re: Stand Firm on States’ Rights

As you may know, staff from both chambers of Congress have nearly completed work reconciling different versions of chemical safety reform legislation (TSCA reform) that passed last year. (H.R. 2576 and S. 697 respectively.) Reportedly, there is at least one major sticking point remaining: should states be blocked for up to 4 years from taking action against a toxic chemical while EPA studies the chemical?

The House legislation, sponsored by Representatives Upton, Shimkus, Pallone, and Tonko, rejected such a provision after much consideration. Now they are under intense pressure by the Senate to back down and accept it. Here is why they, and you, should instead hold your ground.

While the exact policy language in the Senate bill is hard to follow (see addendum), the bottom lines are these:

a) Millions of people who could otherwise be protected will instead be exposed to toxic chemicals for several years, in states as diverse as Washington, California, and Tennessee.

b) A new and terrible precedent would be set – state and local governments legally prohibited from protecting their citizens, in deference to a federal decision that is years away.

The policy violates both conservative and liberal principles and would have an immediate negative impact.

What is the practical impact? State firefighter unions backed by public health advocates and scientists recently have pursued state policies to prohibit certain toxic chemicals that are used to treat furniture. Though the chemicals were introduced in the name of fire safety, numerous studies have shown that they cause cancer and other health problems. Firefighters are exposed to especially high levels – the chemicals “weep” from smoldering furniture and penetrate safety gear. There are safer alternatives. Washington just passed a law banning five of these toxic flame retardants, but it requires further public process and legislative action on six more. The legislatures in Tennessee, Minnesota, and Massachusetts are considering similar bills. (Read the Pulitzer-nominated series on these chemicals for a primer on the science and politics.)

But these laws and implementing rules would be blocked by the Senate provision (and by some of the proposed fixes that have been floated). Literally, thousands of firefighters in these states – already concerned about higher than average cancer rates – will be exposed to these chemicals, pending the four-year EPA review. So will average consumers, since studies show these chemicals break down into household dust and wind up in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

Should firefighters and nursing mothers be exposed to toxic chemicals in the name of reform that is supposed to be about – what was it? – preventing people from being exposed to toxic chemicals?

Another example is Tris, the flame retardant chemical shown to cause cancer and neurological damage. After years of preparation and documentation, California is poised to restrict the chemical in children’s foam sleeping pads in favor of safer alternatives.

Should California’s children instead be exposed to this cancer-causing chemical for four more years because of an act of Congress?

The answer is a clear “no.”

The bipartisan approach of the Energy and Commerce Committee leaders in H.R. 2576, which passed 398 to 1 last June, struck the right balance on this question. The Senate provision would instead break dangerous new ground in the law, setting a terrible precedent.

We urge you to stand firm.