Testifying to Congress: It's Time to Keep Our Families Safe from Toxic Chemicals

Earlier today I testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about why we must update a law that is supposed to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.

For decades, this law has failed to reduce our exposure to serious health hazards. Thanks to a groundswell of activity at the state level that has led to the adoption of numerous state-based protections, even the chemical industry—which has opposed reform for years, now recognizes that changes are necessary.

We must build on this potential mutual interest, because stronger protections are long overdue, and Americans are paying the price. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, has found flame retardants PBDEs—a group of suspected neurotoxicants—in the blood of over 95 percent of Americans that have been tested. These same chemicals are found in umbilical cord blood and breast milk. A recent UCSF study found 43 different chemicals in nearly every pregnant women tested—including flame retardants, plasticizers, phenols, perfluorinated chemicals and perchlorate—and we know this is only a fraction of the chemicals circulating in our bodies. (You can learn more about the study in this Q&A with one of NRDC’s senior scientists.)

Where has this tide of toxins come from? Paints, cleaning products, art supplies, furniture, carpets, building materials, electronics, and textiles. These are just some of the thousands of every day products that contain chemicals that have been linked to reproductive disorders, cancer, and developmental delays.  

We all want to protect our families from these dangers, but too often we are left to our own devices. When Congress passed the original Toxic Substances Control Act, it allowed 62,000 chemicals to continue to be used without requiring testing to determine whether they were safe for human health. Since then, the government has regulated just five of those original chemicals.

Meanwhile, for the 22,000 chemicals introduced since 1976, manufacturers have provided little or no information to the Environmental Protection Agency about potential health and environmental impacts.

So when we go to buy cleaning supplies or new kitchen cabinets, we have no way of knowing if these products include dangerous chemicals. This has to change. We need a stronger line of defense between toxic chemicals and our families.

Congress can help create that by updating the Toxic Substances and Control Act. This won’t be a simple task. A major mistake was made 35 years ago when all of those chemicals were grandfathered in under the law. Now we must remedy that by determining which chemicals are safe and under what conditions. And we must break free of the legal restrictions and red tape that have prevented the EPA from quickly reducing our exposure to the chemicals that have already been proven to cause us harm.

There is widespread support for making these improvements. In the last several years, 18 states have adopted measures to reduce toxic chemicals, nearly all with strong bipartisan support. More than 30 states will consider additional protections this year.

The fact that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding hearings on toxics reform so early in the 112th Congress raises the hope that federal lawmakers might also be ready to take action. Updating safeguards offers an opportunity for a divided Congress to come together in a constructive manner. Other public health laws, like the Food Quality and Protection Act in 1996, have gained traction in similar circumstances, and I believe that toxics reform could, and should, as well.

At today’s hearing, I told lawmakers that NRDC is ready to pursue this opportunity to work with all sides to try and get something done that would be good of all Americans. But I wasn’t  just speaking as the president of an environmental organization. I was also speaking as a breast cancer survivor and the mother of three daughters who—like so many other parents—believes it time America did a better job of keeping our families safe from toxic harm.