Skip to main content

Safe Chemicals Act of 2010: An end to chemical policy’s polyester era?

Lindsay Dahl Lindsay Dahl, Deputy Campaign Director

It’s been a week since Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the groundbreaking Safe Chemicals Act of 2010. Now that we’ve had more time to look over the Senate bill and the discussion draft released by the House of Representatives on the same day, we are still pleased. We support most aspects of the bill and remain optimistic that, if we can adjust a few key points and sustain the loud chorus of public support, the Safe Chemicals Act will garner the bi-partisan support it needs to land on President Obama’s desk.

“We’re saying those who make the chemicals . . . ought to be responsible for testing them first before they’re released to the public . . .” —Senator Frank Lautenberg in the Washington Post

We applaud Senator Lautenberg and Congressmen Waxman and Rush for introducing a strong bill that could provide the peace of mind millions of Americans have been asking for. As the debate unfolds, our main goal will be to provide the encouragement Congress needs to stay strong in the face of chemical industry pressure to water down the bill and preserve the status-quo.

What’s the public reaction?

Compared to some other issues facing Congress lately (think global warming and health care reform), the public conversation on toxics has been notably sane and nonpartisan this week. The new legislation has been greeted with open arms by public health advocates, scientists, businesses, environmental groups, and legislators from both sides of the isle. Even the chemical industry could be found saying carefully vague yet cheerful things about the new bill. The media coverage has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act . . . in 1976, Gerald Ford was still President and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the No. 1 song of the year. . . It may finally be time to bring chemical regulation out of the polyester era.” —Time Magazine

“. . . [the] Safe Chemicals Act aims to do what so many of us wrongly assumed government was doing all along: Assure that the chemicals to which we’re all exposed and which show up in 95 percent of Americans tested, are safe.” —Alison Rose Levy blogging in the Huffington Post

What’s in the bill?

The most important aspect of the bill is that it puts the burden on chemical manufacturers to prove chemicals are safe before they arrive in the marketplace. That’s a reversal of the current system, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prove that a chemical is dangerous before the agency can regulate it.

The bill also requires:

  • Chemical companies to drop the veil of secrecy and make basic health and safety information publicly available for all chemicals.
  • Chemicals to meet a safety standard that protects vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.
  • A new program to identify communities that are disproportionately impacted by chemicals and to create action plans to reduce that burden.
  • Expedited safety assessments that could lead to restricting some of the most notorious toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, lead, and toxic flame-retardants.

The legislation contains three serious shortcomings. With your help, we look forward to working with Congress to fix these problems:

  • It could potentially allow hundreds of new chemicals to enter the market and be used in products for many years without first requiring them to be shown to be safe.
  • It does not provide clear authority for EPA to restrict the use of the most dangerous chemicals, even persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals like asbestos and lead, which already have been extensively studied and are restricted by governments around the world.
  • It would not require EPA to adopt the National Academy of Sciences’, recommendations to incorporate the best and latest science when determining the safety of chemicals (although the Senate bill does give a small nod to the EPA to consider those recommendations.)

What does the chemical industry want to take out of the bill?

The chemical industry has been careful to create an appearance of support and concern for public health, but we expect behind-the-scenes opposition to some of the most important provisions in the bill. Here’s what they’ve said publicly about their concerns:

  • From a statement from the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Associates:   “… the Safe Chemicals Act overreaches in its attempt to impose a new approach to regulating chemicals. The requirement that no less than 300 chemical substances be on the priority list at any given time is overly prescriptive. We have serious reservations with the minimum data set requirement and extending it to all new uses of existing chemicals. We also have concerns with the expansion of the safety standard to industrial chemicals. This would create major challenges for SOCMA members, many of whom manufacture intermediates for which there may be limited exposures and many possible uses that are sometimes unknown to the manufacturer.”
  • From a statement from the American Chemistry Council: “ . . .we are concerned that the bill’s proposed decision-making standard may be legally and technically impossible to meet. The proposed changes to the new chemicals program could hamper innovation in new products, processes and technologies.”

“It’s time to stop using kids as the canaries in the
coal mine. I couldn’t be more excited that this law is being introduced.”
— Dr. Alan Greene, pediatrician, Stanford School of Medicine, quoted in Time

It’s time to take action

This is an opportunity to restore consumer confidence, promote green innovation, and improve our nation’s health. Given the stakes, there’s no room for half measures. Thanks to all of you who have already written to Congress to let them know you want a strong bill. If you have not yet written, time’s a wasting. Go here to contact Congress. We’ll need the support of you and your friends as this bill moves through Congress. It is a great first step, and with you we are confident we can get this bill in the place it needs to be, President Obama’s desk.

“We will need plenty of help to remind legislators that although the chemical companies may have lots of paid lobbyists, their constituents really care about safe chemicals and safe families.” —Gina Soloman, senior scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, blogging in the Huffington Post

Learn more about the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition