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Not Your Father’s Chemical Industry (but is it better or worse?)

by Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director Andy250

This week the American chemical industry gathered for its annual Global Chem conference in Baltimore, and whatever flicker of light that had appeared in recent years that it was prepared to reform itself seems to have dimmed. There wasn’t a single panel or workshop on their agenda that deals with reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act. Instead, in recent months we’ve seen a renewed shamelessness as the industry pursues an agenda of delay, deny and distort. It didn’t (and doesn’t) have to be this way.  Is this REALLY the way the industry wants it?

I was hopeful that we could reach an agreement with the industry around federal reform. Together we could protect pubic health and the environment from toxic chemicals, while also preserving- even strengthening- our domestic chemical manufacturing base. After many, many hours of detailed dialogue on policy and science issues with company leadership it became clear – both to me and many coalition partners – that such an agreement is readily achievable. It still is. While the issues are hard, they are not insurmountable. Also, industry representatives- especially the ones from headquarters rather than Washington lobbyists- made a credible case that they need reform. The proliferation of state laws is creating a chaotic business environment for them. The marketplace is “de-selecting” chemicals through “retail regulation” (their terms) without an independent scientific review. Our trade partners in the European Union are setting the new standards for chemical management, undermining America’s leadership role in health and safety issues.

“…in recent months we’ve seen a renewed shamelessness as the industry pursues an agenda of delay, deny and distort.”

However, at precisely the moment when bilateral dialogue promised agreement, the American Chemistry Council unilaterally ended it. At the moment when – against all odds – the bipartisan process of Senator Lautenberg and Senator Inhofe created an opening for bipartisan engagement in the Senate, the ACC came out forcefully against legislative action- no matter how negotiated- in this Congress. And they’ve been working hard to bring their member companies and other trade associations in line. Meanwhile, they’ve launched aggressive campaigns to undermine EPA’s attempts to implement TSCA, even to provide the public with basic health and safety information on chemicals. They’ve protested the release of long-overdue assessments of styrene and formaldehyde by the National Toxicology Program, and they’ve also shamelessly distorted a National Academy of Sciences report on formaldehyde, into a call for NAS review of all chemical assessments done by EPA.

This last one is especially interesting. The NAS’ review of EPA’s assessment of formaldehyde upheld that it causes nasal and throat cancer but said EPA had not made an adequate case that it causes leukemia. The NAS also pointed to flaws in the way EPA conducts assessments and encouraged the agency to implement the recommendations of its more exhaustive 2008 report: Science and Decisions.  While there is a debate about the leukemia finding (the NTP and many independent scientists think EPA’s original finding is valid based on strong epidemiological data) the broader points raised about updating EPA’s science practice are valid. In fact, one the major planks of our campaign is that EPA should implement the recommendations of Science and Decisions, a goal that is echoed in Senator Lautenberg’s Safe Chemicals Act. But the chemical industry has opposed that report strenuously. Instead, they’ve engaged in an unseemly (and premature) campaign of gloating about formaldehyde (“Ha! We only cause nose and throat cancer! Take that!”) And they’ve chosen to cherry pick the science they like to argue for a policy that would further enshrine gridlock and delay. 

“The point of raising all this is to show just how far afield the industry has gotten from the message they were peddling just a short while ago: that they recognized the need for reform and were prepared to bring it about.”

The point of raising all this is to show just how far afield the industry has gotten from the message they were peddling just a short while ago: that it recognized the need for reform and was prepared to help bring it about. When we launched a satiric cartoon in 2010, several industry representatives complained to us that it was unfair. “A caricature of the industry as something out of the seventies,” one said. It had changed and wanted to sincerely engage with the broad health and environmental sector represented in our coalition to bring about reform. At the time I said that we hoped that was true, but had to judge the industry by its deeds and not its rhetoric. We needed to see the industry willing to put its words into action in some way.

Well… a couple years later and I’m beginning to think that cartoon should have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The only thread running through the chemical industry’s recent actions is opposition to anything that could ever regulate a chemical, science be dammed. Every successful application of its political lobbying machine to delay action – either on the reform legislation or individual rules, only deepens public skepticism that the federal government can ever work effectively for public health, rather than special interests. And it’s worth remembering that the damage to the industry’s reputation could easily dwarf anything seen in the 70’s. Back then we didn’t know that pregnant women and newborn children had industrial chemicals coursing through their veins and that many chemicals are toxic at very low doses.  The more public confidence slips, the more the public will have to look to “retail regulation” and state governments for protection and the more American leadership will slip away.

As the Senate gets closer to action on the Safe Chemicals Act, the industry should ask itself whether it’s on the right path. It’s hard to believe that the proud engineers of some of America’s oldest companies really want to hide in the skirts of Washington gridlock and too-cute-by-half beltway maneuvering. An honest bargain to create new rules of the road for federal oversight, based on the best and latest science, is still there for the taking.