How to judge the chemical industry: Deeds, not words: (Part Three)

As I grow older I pay less attention to what men say.  I just watch what they do.  -- Andrew Carnegie

Talk doesn't cook rice. -- Chinese Proverb

In my last two posts I chronicled the chemical industry’s successful effort to kill a compromise amendment to the Food Safety bill that would have ended the use of the toxic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups.  I also wrote about  the simultaneous press call with reporters that the head of the industry’s trade association  called to reiterate its strong support for chemical policy reform and to blame others, -- including members of Congress that introduced reform legislation, and the health and environmental groups that supported it -- for the lack of progress on reform.  Maybe I should rename this blog “the Chutzpah alert.”  I raised the question as to how much longer the industry’s “we’re for reform” rhetoric was going to fly, given their ongoing actions to defeat or delay even the most mild efforts at reform at every turn.  After this latest action on BPA, the industry’s credibility is falling faster than Ireland’s credit rating.

That said, it is also true that things are looking pretty good politically for the chemical industry right now.  Thanks to the industry’s efforts, general reform of TSCA didn’t progress as far as it might have over the past two years.  EPA has made some progress in a few areas, particularly expanding public right to know about toxic chemicals, but it too has been slowed by strong industry opposition.  And now the greatest legislative threat faced by the industry in two years – removal of BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups – was successfully killed off, without the unpleasantness of a public debate in the Senate, or anybody having to take a recorded vote.   

Add to that the outcome of the mid-term elections and the industry has to be feeling pretty good about all that it has accomplished, and the next few years ahead.

But, I think the chemical industry, or at least some prominent individual companies, actually stand to lose if they follow their trade association’s lead and stand pat on a plan of all talk and no action to reform a badly broken system that fails to protect the public – only action to block reform.

The chemical industry’s most recent “victory” on BPA leaves no doubt that the industry, or at least its leading trade association, the American Chemistry Council, will not and perhaps cannot, support any meaningful reform.  A dozen press conferences proclaiming a “sincere” commitment to reform won’t change that. That may be fine for those  members of the trade association that are truly the “lowest common denominator,” that oppose reform and were never comfortable with the ACC’s rhetorical shift to claiming support for it.

But what about the companies that – at some level – do recognize either the need for reform, its inevitability, or the risks of being publicly revealed as standing in the way of reform?   Those companies – who tend to be bigger players, with familiar household names and familiar household brands in their product mix -- are now kind of stuck.  There is no further right flank than blocking protection for infants and toddlers.  Each member company of the ACC is now part of the so-called “right flank” unless they actually opposed preventing the bi-partisan compromise on BPA.  

Thus far, no ACC member company has sought to separate itself from the herd. The individual companies that have been hiding behind the skirts of their trade association now have a choice: they can own up to their support of the trade association’s successful efforts to defeat the BPA ban, and face the consequences with the public and in the market place; or they can step up and speak publicly, seriously and convincingly against the positions taken by the “lowest common denominator” and in support of specific and meaningful proposals to reform our nation’s chemical laws.  They can demonstrate leadership, and take real action to advance reform.

I do believe there are people in the chemical industry with foresight and vision who want their companies to be out front in the efforts to reform our country’s broken system for regulating chemicals. They surely recognize that the changes taking place in Europe, in the states, and elsewhere around the world – along with broad public concern about the link between chemical exposures and chronic illness and diseases -- are going to drive changes here in the United States, no matter how many roadblocks the industry throws up to block or stall reform.   

But right now, they are invisible. Maybe they are hiding. So, come out, come out, wherever you are.