Strong Support for Congress to Act on Chemical Reform, Little Support for Congress: Coincidence?

Last week, the latest New York Times/CBS poll was released, showing that the public’s approval of Congress had fallen to 9 percent, the lowest since the question was first asked in 1977.

Today,  NRDC is releasing the results of a poll of New Hampshire voters which shows widespread, bi-partisan support for stronger protections from toxic chemicals.   You can find a memo summarizing the results of the poll – conducted by Public Opinion Strategies – here.  But here’s the basic finding: New Hampshire residents -- like people just about everywhere – support stronger federal regulation of toxic chemicals.


77 percent of New Hampshirites support stricter regulation of chemicals produced and used in the United States. 

76 percent expressed support for the key elements of the Safe Chemicals Act, the legislation introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., to reform and improve TSCA. Those elements include:

  • All chemical manufacturers would be required to provide information showing their chemicals are safe in order for those chemicals to be sold on the market;
  • The EPA would be able to limit chemicals that are not shown to be safe and that may harm the public health and the environment; and
  • The EPA would also be able to ban some or all uses of a chemical, or require that people's exposure to that chemical be reduced. However, when use of a specific chemical is critical and there are no good alternatives, it would be allowed to stay on the market for a limited period of time.

74 percent wanted Congress to take immediate action to strengthen regulation of chemicals.

91 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of Independents and 64 percent of Republicans, including 54 percent of Tea Party Republican supporters, favor federal reform.

The failure of the government to ensure that chemicals routinely used in products found in peoples’ homes, schools, workplaces and the marketplace is a serious concern to Americans across the political spectrum.  Apparently, one thing that unites us is that none of us wants our family members, or ourselves, to have cancer, learning or developmental disabilities, infertility issues, asthma, or birth defects.  So, this seems like an easy one for Congress to act on, knowing that it will have broad support, and might even help bump its approval rating up out of the single digits.

New Hampshire is a state with a small but interesting Congressional delegation.  Both Senators are freshman women, one Democrat – Jeanne Shaheen, and one Republican – Kelly Ayotte.  One of the state’s two Congressmen is freshman Frank Guinta, who won his seat with support from the Tea party, unseating incumbent Carol Shea-Porter.  The other is Charlie Bass, who won back his seat after losing it in the Democratic wave of 2006.  Rep. Bass sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee which is the House Committee that would be responsible for moving chemical reform legislation.  So far the Committee hasn’t even had a hearing on the subject of chemical reform this year.  The delegation has experienced a lot of recent turnover, suggesting a need for all members to pay close attention to the views of their constituents, than perhaps more entrenched incumbents.  New Hampshire is also important as a bell weather state on issues of concern to the American public more generally.

The breadth and depth of support for chemical reform found in the New Hampshire poll is consistent with other recent polling this year, as well as last year, on the issue conducted for Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the coalition of health, justice, and environmental groups that came together to advocate for stronger federal regulation of toxic chemicals and reform of TSCA. 

But polling isn’t the only evidence that the public wants action to protect the public from unsafe chemicals.  In recent years, in the absence of federal action, states across the country have adopted dozens of laws restricting the use of chemicals, typically by overwhelming bi-partisan majorities. Ten states have taken such action just this year.  And public concern has led to action by large-scale retailers like Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Staples and others to remove chemicals of concern from their shelves. 

To be fair, the problem is not simply a “do-nothing” Congress. With the notable exception of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and her staff, the Obama Administration also seems to be strikingly clueless and unresponsive to the public desire for chemical reform, and it has been a consistent impediment to taking steps to regulate toxic chemicals under TSCA – or even publish information concerning the potential risks of chemicals.

Two weeks ago, NRDC released a report, “The Delay Game: How the Chemical Industry Ducks Regulation of the Most Toxic Substances.”  The report documents the chemical industry’s long-standing strategy of delaying EPA efforts to finalize health assessments of widespread toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, TCE, and styrene.  The chemical industry has successfully avoided assessment and regulation of toxic chemicals for decades because the law intended to protect the public from those chemicals – the Toxic Substances Control Act – is toothless.

I think one thing that bothers many Americans – and contributes to that 9% percent approval rating -- is that many politicians think announcing something – “I have a bill!” “I have a plan!” -- is the same as actually doing something.  It isn’t.

Leadership on the issue of chemical reform – whether it comes from the New Hampshire delegation or elsewhere in Congress, or even the White House -- would require real action.  It would require challenging a powerful industry that spends millions of dollars each year to delay or prevent action to inform the public and reduce exposure to toxic chemicals.  Because so few politicians seem willing or able to do that, is it any wonder that their approval ratings are at an all-time low?