Q. What did the A-List Actress Bring to Washington? A. Real Leadership on Chemical Reform.

You probably won’t have heard it here first, but the A-List Actress Jessica Alba has joined the campaign for TSCA reform, and she’s coming to Washington DC next week to urge members of Congress to support the Safe Chemicals Act introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg. (You can too, here or here).  As someone committed to achieving real chemical reform in this country, I greatly appreciate Jessica Alba getting involved, and I have tremendous respect for her taking this step. I’m writing this particular post to register my appreciation, and to explain why I think her action is so significant. 

It is a widespread feature of media commentary and political news coverage to deride actors, actresses and other entertainment or celebrity figures when they come to Washington, DC to register their opinions about issues of importance, or support for particular causes.  Part of that contempt is based upon the presumption that an actress, or athlete, or model, or musician couldn’t possibly grasp the subtleties and intricacies of public policy, and therefore are “in over their heads” when conversing with “experts” like members of Congress.

When it comes to reforming our nation’s broken chemical policy however, very few members of Congress have demonstrated any concern or interest in the topic at all, let alone expertise.  Instead, to avoid the uncomfortable position of having to displease a large and powerful industry by supporting meaningful changes to the law that would ensure testing of all chemicals, and immediate action to protect the public from those known to be unsafe, members of Congress – of both parties – have ducked this issue for decades. 

But it is becoming increasingly harder to do, as the snowball effect of study after study, and story after story of nearly universal exposure to unsafe chemicals, continues to build, and the public desire for action grows.  That desire has been validated repeatedly by a host of medical and science associations including the America Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the President’s Cancer Panel (whose members were appointed during the previous administration), the American Nurses Association and many others that have identified the need to reform TSCA as a serious health issue.  Many members of Congress appear to be immune to scientific expertise and authority however, and thus far, the groundswell of concern and support for reform from these bodies has failed to spur a response.

But, now that a major actress has stepped up to call for reform, things might start to change a bit.  The spotlight is going to get a little brighter, and members are going to have to explain to the voters why they are sitting on their hands while babies, and babies not yet born, are being exposed to hundreds of dangerous chemicals (frequently in “small amounts” as the chemical industry likes to say, as if that would matter to anybody but a chemical industry lobbyist).

Based upon my own experience and observation, I believe many politicians love to be around celebrities, and become, to varying degrees, star struck, when they are visited by professional athletes, actors, and others.  But they also fear celebrities who come to town, because they bring with them the attention of their fans and admirers, many of whom are people who may not pay regular or close attention to what is (or is not) getting done in Washington. 

It is the threat of being exposed in the spotlight by the attention of a celebrity that spurs the antagonism celebrities sometimes receive when they come to Washington.  And it is part of why I so appreciate Jessica Alba coming to Washington DC and standing up for this issue – as well as her growing family.  By using her power to attract broader attention to an issue, she is, in her own way, also speaking for the public – most Americans – who share her concerns about ongoing exposure to unsafe chemicals in our daily lives, and the potential harm those chemicals cause, and giving them a voice that otherwise is being ignored in Washington DC.  By drawing attention to this problem, and calling for action to address it, Jessica Alba is taking on the leadership role that most members of Congress have – to date – abdicated.