Congress Tuning In to the Need for Chemical Policy Reform

You might think it wouldn't seem odd for members of Congress to attend a hearing of a subcommittee they sit on, but the reality is that members frequently sit on multiple committees, have overlapping hearings and other conflicts including issues on the floor, meetings with constituents, etc.  That's why I was struck by the degree of interest and level of engagement members showed at a House subcommittee hearing on chemical policy reform — specifically, reform of the ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — held last week. An important hearing to be held in the Senate tomorrow is another good sign that there is momentum behind long awaited TSCA reform.

The intent of last week's House hearing was to consider how to efficiently and effectively address the backlog of some 80,000 existing chemicals that have never been fully assessed for their health or environmental impacts but can be used in all kinds of products from toys to paint to food containers, to clothes to carpeting.  The focus was on how to prioritize certain chemicals for action to protect the public, and other chemicals for assessment to determine whether or not they can meet a safety standard; and for identifying the information needed to be able to fully assess a chemical's safety.

While reform of our nation's broken system for assuring the safety of chemicals used in commerce is both necessary and important, without a reform bill introduced in the House or Senate, or a recent front-page story, I had realistically low expectations for turnout by members of either party.

But not only was there very good turnout on both sides, it was clear that the members were listening carefully to the testimony and questions asked by their colleagues.  Members of both parties made clear in their opening statements that they recognized that the status quo was unacceptable both for protecting their constituents from unsafe chemicals, for businesses that cannot comfortably or confidently vouch for the safety of their products, or for chemical manufacturers facing international and state-based efforts to address problems unaddressed for a generation by TSCA.  There was almost no partisanship on display at the hearing, and the little bit that did flare-up was most notable for how out-of-place it seemed in the context of a hearing on this issue that cuts across all lines of party, gender, race, age, or geography.

The House hearing didn't result in firm conclusions or agreements on exactly how to best-restructure TSCA.  Congress is still reorienting itself toward this law and its many problems; which have been largely swept under the rug for past 30 years.  But it was an encouraging start.

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold its first hearing this year on chemical policy and the need for TSCA reform.  The Committee has spent the bulk of its time this year wrestling with the issue of Climate, and the strong disagreements on the Committee over that issue are well-documented.  Now that a bill has been reported, there is some more room on the Committee's schedule to devote to other topics.  The hearing tomorrow will feature only three witnesses: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., the Director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and John B. Stephenson, Director of Natural Resources and the Environment for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

All three witnesses work for the federal government, and will not be representing the views of chemical manufacturers, downstream businesses, environmental groups, or any of the other interested stakeholders.  They will be testifying about the problems with TSCA and, presumably, the importance of fixing those problems to protect public health and the environment.  That seems like a good place to start. 

As in the House, members of the Senate sit on multiple committees and typically have schedules that are full from morning until night (this is true for Republicans and Democrats; I think how hard most members of Congress work is not very well appreciated).  With the Health Care on the floor of the Senate, undoubtedly some members will be unable to attend the hearing.  But I'm hoping that, like in the House, turnout will be strong, and that members on both sides will come with their ears open and their questions ready, without pre-conceptions, so that a genuine effort to address this serious issue can begin.  The public has been waiting for a generation, and shouldn't have to wait much longer for Congressional action to address the health threats posed by exposure to toxic chemicals.