Part II: Stemming the Tide of Toxic Chemicals -- Why Now?

As I wrote earlier this week, our national system for regulating toxic chemicals is broken and desperately in need of repair. Luckily, five key developments have set the stage for the best opportunity to make significant gains on chemical policy reform that we've ever seen.

First and foremost, the change in political leadership in the White House and Congress fundamentally unfreezes the legislative and administrative processes to allow meaningful hearings and oversight to consider and address problems with the current approach to chemical regulation. This is true at the most general level and at the more specific levels of who holds key leadership positions, including Committee and subcommittee Chairmanships in both Houses of Congress.

Second, the European Union's adoption of a progressive and comprehensive chemical policy statute -- Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) -- has dramatically changed the global landscape of chemicals management. Although it is early in its implementation, REACH has already forced all chemical companies who trade with the EU to confront a new chemicals management regime that, among other things, requires greater information disclosure, and shift the burden of proof on safety from government to industry. REACH also creates the prospect of actual restrictions on use of chemicals, including complete bans in some instances.

Third, while things have essentially stagnated at the federal level in the U.S., environmental, public health, and consumer groups have been active at the state level. They have introduced and, in some instances, passed legislation or strengthened state-level standards that have raised public awareness and addressed such priority problems such as:

  • Phthalates in toys (Washington and California).
  • Perchlorate in drinking water (Massachusetts and California).
  • Bisphenol A in products and food packaging (more than a dozen states).
  • PBDEs as flame retardants (California, Washington and other states).
    • States such as Maine and California have also developed excellent legislative efforts to promote green chemistry. These victories have begun to "filter up" to federal legislators and establish a menu of options for federal policy approaches, as well as disprove many of industry's spin about the cost or impracticality of certain policies.

    Fourth, a series of scandals under the Bush Administration has dramatically revealed the near-collapse of the regulatory function of the federal government -- the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency among others.

    From the after-the-fact discovery of high levels of lead in children's jewelry and toys, to the illness of thousands of dogs and cats from pet food contaminated with melamine (and subsequent discovery of the same chemical in powdered milk), to missteps in the government's analysis of the health risks posed by bisphenol A and phthalates, these reports have galvanized public support for improvements in what is otherwise an arcane and complex topic.

    Fifth, the environmental community has made strides in resolving strong differences of opinion about the best path forward for toxic chemical reform and developed a consensus position on many priorities for chemical reform legislation. The resulting consensus legislation was introduced as the Kid Safe Chemicals Act (KSCA) in the last Congress. While not perfect, the bill was notable for its support by a broad array of environmental groups. Over time, KSCA has come to be recognized as a strong starting point for reforming the Toxics Substance Control Act, the legislation that (as I noted) is all but dead.

    These five factors combine to provide environmental, public health, labor, and consumer groups their best opportunity in decades to advance legislation to broadly reform existing federal law and to advance efforts at the administrative level to improve toxic chemical policy in America.

    Up next: a comprehensive menu of reform.

    See also: