The Day After: Now more than ever, politicians of all stripes should embrace chemical policy reform

Big changes here in Washington, DC: a strong new Republican majority in the House (likely to be led by Rep. John Boehner, who ran a successful chemical company in Ohio before getting into politics); and a Senate with Democrats still in control but by a significantly narrower margin.

But, the day after the tsunami, some things have not changed:

  • The public remains concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals that are linked to chronic illnesses and disease like cancer, learning and developmental disabilities, and reproductive harm;
  • The science documenting both the potential hazards of chemicals ranging from formaldehyde to bisphenol A to flame retardants, and the widespread exposure of the public to these chemicals through contact with everyday products, will continue to grow, as it does now on an almost daily basis;
  • The public continues to strongly support reform of our chemical laws, and successful efforts to regulate chemicals at the state level (generally with strong bi-partisan support in state legislatures) will continue, particularly in the absence of strong federal regulation;
  • The public and “downstream” businesses – including major retailers –will increasingly turn away from products for which there is reasonable concern about safety.

It will be instructive to see how the chemical industry, and the two major political parties respond to the election and the movement to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the long-broken law that has failed to protect the public from unsafe chemicals, and has kept people in the dark about the safety of thousands of chemicals, as well as where they are used and how people are exposed.

While chemical policy reform is routinely dismissed by DC insiders as not a “top tier” issue that can move voters, recent polling suggests that assessment is wrong.  And, as one of the major narratives about this election was whether or not the party in power was “listening to the people,” it would behoove both parties to take a serious look at the evidence that there is broad public support, across party, class, gender, educational, and regional lines for serious efforts to regulate chemicals.

And of course there are all those policy and public health reasons to support broad federal reform as well: the reduced number of chronic disease and illness and consequent drop in health care and other social costs that we would see with reform, the stimulation of innovation that will help U.S. companies compete in a global market that is increasingly moving toward production and use of safer chemicals, etc.

Two years ago, the chemical industry shifted its rhetoric dramatically and for the first time endorsed the notion of TSCA reform.  Unfortunately, in the intervening two years, its actions largely failed to reflect that rhetoric.  But with the new political alignment in Washington, there are really no excuses left for not seriously engaging in an effort to get something done. Whatever industry's previous concerns were about the kind of compromise that could ultimately be reached under the leadership of Reps. Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, they have been resolved by the election.   

Now may be the best time for the chemical industry to try and honestly address the public's legitimate concerns about the safety of chemicals, the lack of information available to EPA, states, and the public, and the barely functioning system in place for, yes, regulating the production and use of chemicals in this country. If the chemical industry – or even a few of its more forward thinking companies -- were to get serious, and put some real proposals on the table that don’t just whitewash the status quo – that would reduce or eliminate exposure to unsafe chemicals and ensure EPA can do meaningful safety evaluations of chemicals based upon modern scientific methods – there could be potential for real progress and compromise, the things everybody says they want the day after an election.  It would also present a great political opportunity for both parties.

On the other hand, if the industry retrenches, because it perceives there is no longer the threat of TSCA reform being at or near the top of the legislative agenda, the popular pressure for that reform will continue to build.  States, retailers, consumers, downstream users, (and ultimately Europe), will continue to move away from individual chemicals and products. This will present a host of growing challenges to individual companies whose products are singled-out for attention, and the chemical industry generally. It will also present a political opportunity to anyone looking for another issue that the public feels strongly about, and is fed up that their representatives in Washington are out of touch, aren’t listening, and aren’t taking action to fix the problem.