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Why we will win, no matter who controls Congress

Andy Igrejas, Campaign DirectorBy Andy Igrejas
Director, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition

Now that the election results are finally in and we know that Republicans have taken over the House, it’s easy to assume that the largely Democratic-lead efforts in Congress to reform our nation’s failing chemicals policy are doomed. I am happy to report that they’re not. Understanding why may help you figure out how you want to help the reform effort over the next year or two.

Many of you may have seen the recent story in Politics Daily by veteran journalist Sheila Kaplan, titled: “Chemical Reform Collapses as Industry Flexes its Muscles.” It reviews the recent science, which shows we’ve been underestimating the harm to human health from chemicals for years. The article describes in-depth how the chemical industry deployed a multi-million dollar lobbying and political operation to defeat reform this year. In particular, it describes how the industry’s rhetorical support for reform at the beginning of the last Congress lulled key decision-makers into hoping they would be a constructive force. Instead, at the exact moment when reform was on the table — and their input was aggressively sought — the chemical industry heaped scorn on the legislation and rallied Republican Congressmen, in particular, to oppose it. Together with a packed Congressional calendar and increasing Democratic skittishness about taking pre-election votes considered tough by members of Congress, the strategy proved effective. (Notably, recent polling shows there should be nothing tough about this issue — Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, overwhelming support TSCA reform, even when juxtaposed with the tired “jobs vs. environment” refrain.)

…we’ve been underestimating the harm to human health from chemicals for years…

The most important reason why we’re not packing our bags and moving west is that the strength of this campaign is not derived from who controls Congress. It’s derived from the overwhelming public support for reducing the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment. That public support has made itself known in the marketplace, led by very informed consumers like yourselves and by small, but significant, policy changes at the state and local level. For whatever reason, the chemical industry has had a hard time controlling these forces in the same way they can control policy-making in Washington. (It’s still a free country, afterall…) And these forces have started to take a bite out of their hide, knocking problematic chemicals out of the marketplace even without new federal rules.

As a critical mass of awareness developed over the last five years about chemicals and health, the chemical industry’s great asset—that it wrote its own rules in Washington—became a liability. It led to a collapse of consumer confidence in chemicals that was frankly overdue.

The more the status quo stays in place, the more consumers will have to rely on their own information to protect themselves and their families from dangerous chemicals. Companies that care about consumer preference, led by retailers like Walmart and Staples (and many more), have already adopted their own chemical policies to weed out bad chemicals and respond to consumer demand. More will follow. Eighteen states have acted on chemicals in the last eight years, and a few, including Maine, Washington, Minnesota, and California, have moved to develop their own consumer protection systems in the absence of federal rules. We’ll see more of that too.

I review this recent history because it suggests that it is the chemical industry that’s facing a crossroads, not us. What we’re doing is working. The organizations in this campaign will continue to educate the public about the hazards of chemicals, scrupulously grounded in what the mainstream science is telling us. We will continue to propose policy solutions at the state and local level and provide advice to any businesses wanting to avoid toxic chemicals in their products. Many of you will continue to exercise your power of the purse in the market place, and your power as a citizen in what is still (at least sometimes) our representative government.

The chemical industry, however, will have to decide if it wants to get real about reform. My own sense is that they are of two minds. On the one hand, there are people at the headquarters of some major companies, both in the business end and the science/engineering end, who are proud of their work and believe it would hold up under the scrutiny of a new federal policy. They acknowledge some bad chemicals are out there. They can see benefits in reform and are realistic enough to realize that it won’t be credible, and therefore won’t promote consumer confidence, if it doesn’t have the support of the public health and environmental community.

On the other hand are those steeped in the culture of corporate/government relations in Washington. This camp sees our success with consumers and state level officials as a nuisance to manage. Having killed off strong reform legislation this year, they hope to pass phony reform legislation next year with the help of their well-placed Congressional allies. (We describe the differences between phony and real reform here.) If this camp wins out, we may first have to work to defeat band-aid legislation that addresses some of the more minor problems with TSCA but fails to take steps to guarantee the health and safety of chemicals. I’m confident we can do that, if needed. In spite of thirty years of feel-good advertising, the chemical industry, as our poll shows, lacks credibility with the American public.

In spite of thirty years of feel-good advertising, the chemical industry, as our poll shows, lacks credibility with the American public.

But it would be better if the chemical industry would deal with its underlying problems head on. The fact is that chemicals known to cause cancer and other problems, like formaldehyde, are still widely used in the U.S. They shouldn’t be. Most chemicals have not been evaluated for their health and safety. They should be. Consumers and businesses don’t have access to that information. They deserve it. As long as these solutions are stifled at the national level, they will find other outlets.

If you’re worried about the direction of reform, the best thing you can do is keep up the good work, whether it’s activism at the state and local level, leveraging your power as a consumer, or holding your federal representatives accountable. The U.S. will, eventually, make the transition to safer chemicals. The only question is how quickly and how many health consequences we’re willing to tolerate in the meantime.