Toward a Non-Toxic Earth Day

Yesterday my father-in-law had surgery in Pittsburgh.  He’s being treated for kidney cancer.  He grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in a region with a lot of exposure to toxic chemicals.  He and his family never smoked.  I was thinking of him all day, and thinking about the upcoming fight that is going to be necessary to win real reform to protect all of us from daily exposure to unsafe chemicals.  That put me in mind of Earth Day as a time to launch a (non-violent) battle to pass strong legislation to win real reforms to our deeply flawed system for keeping people safe from toxic chemicals.

The first Earth Day protest is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s, which led to passage of landmark environmental and public health laws like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act. And in the forty years since that first Earth Day, these celebrations have often focused on a particular legislative initiative in Congress, or a major action under way regarding a specific environmental law.   But one major law enacted in the wake of the first Earth Day is never invited to the celebration, and is never the focus of an Earth Day anniversary.  That law is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), widely regarded as the greatest failure in the post-Earth Day class of environmental statutes. 

Poor TSCA.  It was intended to stem the rising tide of toxic chemicals to which the public was regularly exposed, in their homes, the workplace and the marketplace.  Unfortunately, it started off on the wrong foot , grandfathering the 62,000 chemicals then in use out of new testing and review for safety.  In addition, the law was written in a way that has made it extremely difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to establish which chemicals may be harmful and impose regulatory controls on even those that are widely known to be unsafe – carcinogens like asbestos for example – to which people continue to be widely exposed.  The list of TSCA’s problems and failures is long, and the cumulative result of those failures is that, 40 years after Earth Day, we continue to be in the dark about the health and environmental effects of thousands of chemicals in use in all kinds of products, and we don’t really have a functioning system for addressing those chemicals that are unsafe or for protecting the public.

But the time may have finally come for TSCA to have its day in the sun.  Tomorrow, Senator Frank Lautenberg and Congressmen Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman will introduce legislation in Congress to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.  The details won’t be available until the bills are released, but, based upon general descriptions there is a lot to look forward to.  Each bill would go a long way toward reforming the nation’s chemical policies.  The bills will expand the public’s right to know about the health and safety effects of most chemicals, require chemicals to meet a safety standard that protects children and other particularly vulnerable populations, and put the burden on the chemical industry to prove that its products are safe.  The legislation also requires EPA to develop action plans to reduce unsafe chemicals in communities disproportionately exposed to toxic pollution.

It sounds like the bills will have some shortcomings that will need to be improved (more on this in future posts). But, on balance, the bills that will be introduced tomorrow are likely to provide an excellent starting place to strengthen EPA’s authority to protect the public…which means that the chemical industry is likely to be strongly opposed, and will gear up to weaken or kill the proposals. 

Whether it is lead, formaldehyde, asbestos, TCE, arsenic, dioxin, persistent flame retardants, Bisphenol A in bottles and cans, or phthalates in toys – the chemical industry is always ready with deep pockets and an army of lawyers, lobbyists, press flacks, and scientists-for-hire to block, weaken, delay or overturn measures intended to protect the public from unsafe chemicals. 

The public should therefore expect that, whether publicly or behind closed doors, the lobbyists for the chemical industry are going to work overtime to pressure members of Congress and the Obama Administration to weaken the bills that will be introduced tomorrow, to ensure that the reforms proposed are less effective, and the protections adopted at the end of the process, do as little as possible to truly reform the nations’ chemical policy.

It will be too soon to celebrate a reformed TSCA this year.  This Earth Day people should be gearing up for a fight, to ensure that the best, and strongest possible reform bill can move through Congress and make it to the President’s desk.  Some Earth Days, including the first one, have been days of protest, and organizing.  Meaningful TSCA reform is not going to be handed to us, either by chemical companies or politicians.  We have to win this one for ourselves.

Today I walked briefly through a small park near the Senate that was full of blooming cherry blossoms and azaleas.  It was stunningly beautiful, and that got me in the mind of the celebration element of Earth Day, and being grateful for all that we have all around us.  So, with Earth Day around the corner, I’m hoping millions of people across the country will celebrate the beautiful planet we all call home, and think about the people they love.  Some of them, family or friends, may have cancer, or may have a learning or developmental disability, or autism, or be wrestling with infertility.  I hope people will think of everyone they love and care about, and will gear up to Take Out Toxics and join the fight for real chemical policy reform that will make a difference in all of our lives, and will make perhaps the next Earth Day one that is cause for a great celebration.