For (Chinese) New Year: Winds of Change Threaten to Topple the Chemical Industry's House of Cards

With the arrival of Chinese New Year, 2013 is shaping up to be another banner year when the chemical industry’s decades of deception and purchased power in Washington DC will come home to roost in the form of state-level regulation and restrictions on the use of chemicals across the country, as well as action by major retailers to remove products containing chemicals of dubious safety from their shelves (what the industry dolefully refers to as “retail regulation”).

Citizens, lawmakers, and state officials are off to a fast start.   Just last week, California Governor Jerry Brown formally proposed to reform the states’ misguided and ineffective furniture flammability standard.  The current standard, written to require the interior of sofas and other furniture to be able to withstand fire, has resulted in furniture foam being doused with toxic flame retardant chemicals – up to two pounds in most couches! Those chemicals don’t stay in the couch, instead, they migrate into the air of homes all over the state – and all over the country, since furniture makers put the same flame retardants in their furniture sold to states other than California.  Recent testing found that children in California have the highest levels in the world of toxic flame retardants in their blood.  The flame retardants have been linked to cancer, learning disabilities, and infertility.

The sordid history of how the tobacco and chemical industries worked to obtain, and then defend, the furniture flammability standard was laid out in appalling detail in the Chicago Tribune last year.  My NRDC colleague Dr. Sarah Janssen has a blog  on the website of Scientific American with more details about the new standard and the health risks posed by exposure to toxic flame retardants.  You can also watch a short and informative video featuring Dr. Janssen, her daughter, and her cat on the harms from toxic couches.

Governor Brown deserves our thanks for standing up to the pressure and propaganda of the chemical industry.  Too few politicians, at the state or federal level have been willing to do so, at the expense of the public health.  Strong public support will counter pressure from the chemical industry, and ensure that the safer and more scientific proposed standard is finalized by this summer.

All the way across the country in Maine, Governor Paul Le Page’s special relationship with the chemical industry has not stopped the state from moving forward to expand limitations on the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) to packaging of infant formula and baby food.  Governor Le Page – who made a …spectacle of himself in 2011 when he declared that, as a result of exposure to BPA “the worst case is some women may have little beards” – is now opposing an expansion of the state level protections on the grounds that the Food and Drug Administration under President Obama  is itself refusing to act.  There he goes again.  FDA’s failure to protect the public, -- at the behest of the same chemical companies that are blocking national toxics reform legislation – is exactly the reason that Maine and other states are acting on their own.  In January, Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection voted unanimously in support of expanding the ban on BPA to include infant formula and baby food containers.

That’s two big wins for the public and two big losses for the chemical industry in the first few weeks of the year.   There are sure to be others.   Also last month, the SAFER States coalition released a detailed legislative agenda for chemical reform that will see bills introduced in at least 26 states including bans on flame retardants, Bisphenol  A (BPA), cadmium and formaldehyde as well as proposals to identify chemicals of concern and require manufacturers to disclose their use of those substances in consumer products.

As spring arrives, the chemical industry should expect a new wave of consumer activism targeting chemicals and the products that contain them.  The steady drip, drip, drip of companies being compelled by consumer demand to reformulate their products – Procter & Gamble reducing levels of 1,4 dioxane in Tide, Johnson & Johnson removing formaldehyde from its Baby Shampoo -- is liable to turn into a flood when the public realizes just how many unsafe chemicals are found in well-known and popular products.

Meanwhile, as the new Congress gets underway, the news from Washington is that Louisiana Senator David Vitter – perhaps the chemical industry’s best friend in the U.S. Senate – is in a small room with the nation’s (and really the world’s) largest chemical companies writing a bill that will be offered as the “industry alternative” to Senator Lautenberg’s Safe Chemicals Act – the chemical reform legislation supported by hundreds of health, consumer, labor, environmental and environmental justice organizations.   It’s not hard to predict which bill will be a serious attempt to reform our broken toxics laws to protect the public and which will be a weak pseudo-reform bill intended only as a tactical move to prevent the Senate from acting quickly to address this nationwide problem.  It seems like a cynical move.

The chemical industry has aggressively fought meaningful regulation for decades, leaving our families awash in hundreds, and perhaps thousands of chemicals, many that we know are unsafe, and many more that haven’t been safety tested at all.   Companies using those chemicals have benefitted from the broken law that rewards industry secrecy, and that prevents government health agencies from effectively obtaining information, ordering testing, or requiring chemicals meet a safety standard to protect the public.  But now the costs of decades of neglect are starting to be realized, and the status quo can no longer hold.  Each company will have to make its own determination, and take responsibility for its own products, as the winds of change sweep across the country and threaten to upend the house of cards the chemical industry has built to protect itself at the expense of the public's health.

The public overwhelming supports stronger regulation of toxic chemicals and is smart enough to know that legislation written by chemical giants like Dow, DuPont and Exxon are not the way to get it.  So action will continue -- at the state level, in the marketplace, and in Congress, -- as the Safe Chemicals Act is re-introduced and moves to the Senate floor for a vote by the full Senate.  In this New Year, companies making products containing chemicals – and politicians in Congress – better move quickly to catch-up, or they will be left behind by the American People.

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