The Absurdity of Influence: The Chemical Industry Relies on Money and Shamelessness in Bid to Block Reform in Washington

There are two major pillars that help the chemical industry wield power in Washington and in state capitols around the country.  First, of course, is money.   A recent report by Common Cause, “Toxic Spending: The Political Expenditures of the Chemical Industry 2005-2012” documents the hundreds of millions of dollars the chemical industry spends on lobbying, political advertising, and campaign contributions.  For example, in 2011 and the first half of 2012, the industry spent $81.6 million dollars lobbying Congress in Washington.  That does not include lobbying expenditures at the state level. For an industry with $760 billion in annual revenues, that’s well worth it to buy influence in an effort to prevent stronger regulation of toxic chemicals, despite support for greater regulation by 68% of the public, and 77% support for legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

The second pillar of the industry’s influence is its willingness to be as dishonest and hypocritical as necessary to achieve its political ends.  Here are just a few examples of this critical element of the industry’s strategy:    

  • Industry’s employment of a burn doctor, who travelled throughout the country providing false testimony to state legislators about babies who had allegedly been burned to death by furniture lacking chemical flame retardants.  The compelling but false testimony was effective in scaring legislators from taking steps to reduce public exposure to toxic flame retardants.  This was revealed in an expose published by the Chicago Tribune, which documented a litany of industry lies and distortions, as well as its close relationship with the tobacco industry in defense of toxic flame retardants (the tobacco industry’s interest is in not being required to make a self-extinguishing cigarette).  

Some chemical companies not directly involved in misleading the public on flame retardants might protest that it isn’t fair to blame the industry on a few “bad actors.”  But it is worth noting that when state legislators called upon the chemical industry’s main trade association to expel the companies identified in the Tribune series the industry instead circled the wagons – uttered no public criticism of the companies – and promoted the CEO of one of the major flame retardant manufacturers – Albemarle --  to the Board of Directors of its trade association.

What are the historic consequences for the public of the chemical industry’s influence in Washington?  Simply put: a near-complete lack of regulation of industrial chemicals used in commercial and consumer products.  Those familiar with the current state of the law know that roughly 80,000 chemicals are part of the inventory of chemicals that can be used in products in the U.S., few of which (2%) have even been required to be tested for their effects on human health and the environment.   In 35 years, EPA has partially regulated five chemicals. 

The absence of regulation of the chemical industry is one way to measure the industry’s influence.  Another is to consider some of the issues that are of greatest concern to Americans of all stripes but that received no mention in the political contest that ended on Tuesday.   Men have about a 1 in 2 lifetime risk of developing cancer, for women the risk is about 1 in 3.  Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., accounting for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths.  In 2012 more than 500,000 Americans are expected to die from cancer, more than 1,500 people a day. (Those figures are all from the American Cancer Society)  Overall cancer deaths have declined, thanks in part to the reduced rates of smoking and improved treatment and detection, but the incidence of several types of cancer continue to rise – including thyroid, kidney and liver cancer in men and women and leukemia and brain cancer in children.

The President’s Cancer Panel (appointed by President George W. Bush), in a 2010 report concluded that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated” and specifically called for reform of TSCA which it called “the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of chemical contaminants.”  Other organizations calling for reform of TSCA include the American Medical Association, the National Medical Association and the American Nurses Association.

Ultimately, the campaign to protect the public from carcinogens and other unsafe chemicals is bound to succeed.  During the past two years, the chemical industry hung its hat on the idea that it could block progress on the Safe Chemicals Act until the November elections, when either the Senate or the White House would “flip” and take reform off the table for the foreseeable future.  That strategy has now failed. Despite the chemical industry’s advantages in money to spend and willingness to say anything, the industry has nevertheless failed in its bid to stifle forward motion in Washington DC or across the country.  In the wake of the Chicago Tribune’s expose, a bi-partisan group of 26 Senators called on the EPA to quickly finalize rules to increase information collection and reporting on the use of PBDE flame retardants.  Shortly after hundreds of moms travelled to Washington for a National Stroller Brigade, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted the Safe Chemicals Act out of committee – the first TSCA reform measure to move out of a committee in thirty-six years -- setting the stage for a Senate floor vote.  While a vote may not come in the lame duck session after the election, it is a good bet that in 2013 the Senate will vote on legislation to reform TSCA, for the first time since 1976.

Despite its economic power and lack of conscience, the chemical industry’s influence is not absolute – either inside or outside the beltway. While the chemical industry struggles to hold back the building pressure for national reform, measures to restrict the use of unsafe chemicals continue to be enacted by state legislatures -- with solid to overwhelmingly bi-partisan support -- and adopted in the marketplace by some of the nation’s biggest retail companies including Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreen’s, Toys R Us, Staples and many others. The chemical industry faces multiple challenges to its policy of obstruction, including a Senate vote on the Safe Chemicals Act, and increased activity in state legislatures and in the marketplace, particularly in light of Tuesday’s election results.

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