The Senate is showing some signs of life on the subject of chemical reform, with two hearings on the flame retardant scandal exposed by the Chicago Tribune and, finally, a mark-up of the Safe Chemicals Act in the Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday. The flame retardant scandal – Flame-gate? – has put enough heat on the chemical industry that it may finally thaw Congress, which has been frozen in place for 35 years while the public continues to be poisoned by toxic chemicals.
Why would heat on the chemical industry allow Congress to act? Because, like other powerful lobbies in Washington, the chemical industry spends tens of millions of dollars each year on lobbying, public relations, and campaign contributions, not only to pass various pieces of its affirmative agenda – like undermining the public’s right to know about the hazards posed by their chemical products – but also to prevent any meaningful reforms from getting up or down votes in the Senate or House.
But even with all that money “invested” in keeping Congress in line, when the media reveals that your industry has made a decades-long practice of lying to state legislators, paying doctors to fabricate testimony about babies burned to death because of the failure to use enough toxic flame retardants in furniture and crib mattresses, and allying yourself with the tobacco industry -- the benchmark for dishonesty in its defense of a deadly product – eventually, somebody is bound to hold a hearing or two to look into matters. It also creates the perfect conditions to call for a vote on some modest measures to reform a thoroughly broken system that fails to protect the public.
As usual, Congress (and the White House) lags far behind the knowledge and desire of the people who elected them, a situation well-illustrated by several polls released last week by NRDC, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, and the Ecology Center in Michigan. These polls show strong, bi-partisan, across-the-board concerns about the health effects of chemicals in their everyday lives. Support was equally strong, or stronger, for stricter regulation of chemicals, including requiring the chemical industry to prove its products are safe, and giving the EPA greater authority to regulate those chemicals, including limitations on some or all uses of those that are unsafe.
Senator Durbin was the first out of the box with a hearing in his Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. He used that “general government” jurisdiction to call the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Inez Tenenbaum, and the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Jim Jones, to testify.
For anyone assuming that the federal agencies charged with protecting our health and safety have the tools they need to fulfill their mission, the testimony they provided was certainly disturbing. CPSC Chair Tenenbaum testified that her agency has been working on setting a new flammability standard for furniture for nearly a decade. She further testified that the agency is essentially tied up in knots, largely due to the burden placed on the CPSC under the Flammable Fabrics Act, which – very much like the burdens EPA faces under Toxic Substances Control Act -- makes taking any meaningful step to solve much of the problem nearly impossible. Her implicit message: don’t expect us to do anything about this problem anytime soon, we can’t.
The testimony from EPA was only slightly more encouraging. Assistant Administrator Jones also recited the limitations placed on his agency by the practically non-functioning Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and, in response to questions, made clear that, while the agency had launched a new initiative to focus on the review of health and safety of key ingredients of flame retardants, what is really needed is to reform TSCA in the manner embodied in Senator Frank Lautenberg’s Safe Chemicals Act (S.847). That bill, Mr. Jones testified, would make it easier for the EPA to obtain health and safety information from chemical companies, would shift the burden of proof onto the chemical companies to prove that their products are safe, and would further allow the agency to act quickly to regulate toxic substances once the agency determined that they posed safety concerns. You can read the testimony of CPSC and the EPA here, as well as the other witnesses, and also watch the webcast of the hearing. In particular, see the exchange between Senator Durbin and Assistant Administrator Jones beginning at 53:48 to 59:04.
A second hearing on the flame retardant scandal will take place on Tuesday July 24th before the full Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The Committee will hear from Jim Jones of EPA, Heather Stapleton a scientist researching flame retardants at Duke University, Tony Stefani, President and Founder of San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, William K. Rawson a Washington, DC lawyer who has made a minor career of arguing that TSCA works great and does not need to be reformed; Hannah Pingree, former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives at a time when Maine was one of the first states to limit the use of some toxic flame retardants, and experience first-hand the lengths the chemical industry would take to deceive state legislators and the public about their toxic products; and a representative of Chemtura, one of the three major manufacturers of flame retardants sold in the U.S. and, according to the Chicago Tribune series, a sponsor of the phony front group Citizens for Fire Safety which has been a key entity in the industry’s decades-long effort to promote using massive amounts of flame retardants in furniture and prevent efforts to scale back the use of those toxic chemicals.
The dishonesty and dirty tactics discussed in the Tribune’s expose raise many, many serious questions about how the chemical industry has operated on flame retardants, and, by extension many of its other products including endocrine disrupters like BPA, phthalates and triclosan, and high volume products that are known or reasonably anticipated carcinogens like formaldehyde and styrene. There is much more investigation and oversight of this industry that needs Congressional attention, more than one hearing can possibly cover, but delving into the matter of flame retardants is a good place to start.
Two days after Senator Durbin’s hearing, NRDC and our colleagues at Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and the Ecology Center released the results of five new polls on public views on chemical reform. Those included a national poll, and polls in New Mexico, Michigan, Nevada and Missouri. The polls were conducted by several different polling firms including Public Opinion Strategies, the Mellman Group, Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3). The results were consistent and overwhelming. You can read a summary and link to memos describing the results in our press release here. But here are a few of the key points:
- Nearly 74 percent of those polled think the threat posed to people’s health by the exposure to toxic chemicals is serious, with 34 percent saying they think the threat is “very serious.”
- 68 percent of respondents support stricter regulation of chemicals used and produced in the United States, with support across all demographic sub-groups, including those typically opposed to government regulation, such as self-described conservatives (54 percent) and tea party supporters (51 percent).
- Description of a proposal that would require the chemical industry to prove that its products are safe and give EPA greater authority to restrict some or all uses of chemicals that may harm health or the environment garnered support from 77 percent of respondents.
- 76 percent of respondents consider chemical exposure a serious health threat in day-to-day life. 74 percent of respondents support the legislation described that would increase EPA authority and require that the chemical industry prove its products are safe – including 81 percent of women, and 78 percent of Latino respondents.
- 62 percent of respondents in Missouri support stricter regulation of chemicals, and 64 percent support the provisions of legislation to strengthen the current law.
- 61 percent of respondents support stricter regulation while 64 percent support the provisions of the legislation.
In Michigan (home of Dow Chemical):
- 74 percent of respondents supportive of legislation described to increase EPA’s authority to regulate chemicals and require chemical companies to prove that their products are safe. The poll also found 61 percent of respondents were extremely or very concerned about the health impacts from toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes, and 32 percent were somewhat concerned. A mere 6 percent were not concerned.
So unless you are stuck in the bubble inside the beltway, where corporate spending is not only speech, but food and oxygen, then you and the vast majority of your fellow citizens are concerned about the impact constant daily exposure to hundreds of toxic chemicals is having on your health and the health of your family, friends and co-workers. Just like protecting our borders from attacks and invasions, we want the government to also protect our homes and bodies from being invaded by chemicals that can cause cancer, infertility, birth defects and learning disabilities.
Due to a quirk of timing, the flame retardant hearing Tuesday comes just one day before the Senate Environment Committee will “mark-up” (meaning consider amendments and vote on) the Safe Chemicals Act (S.847), Senator Lautenberg’s legislation to reform TSCA. That bill would shift the burden of proof to industry to prove that its products are safe to remain on the market – the same requirement that exists now for pesticides and pharmaceuticals – and give EPA streamlined authority to require testing of chemicals, and to take action to reduce exposure to those chemicals that are unsafe. Those toxic chemicals already known to be of concern – persistent and bioaccumulative substances and others that are highly toxic – would receive the earliest attention and expedited action from EPA. The bill would expand the public’s right to know about the health and safety effects of chemicals, as well as their uses and likely sources of human exposure. And it would require the EPA to follow the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences in how it assesses the safety of chemicals.
Of course, the chemical industry calls the bill “extreme” and is in a snit that it will come up for an actual vote. But, to most Americans, those kinds of protections aren’t extreme; they are what they overwhelmingly want to have in place and Congress can’t move fast enough to get the job done. What’s extreme is an industry that promotes false testimony, creates phony front groups, and distorts the results of scientific studies to perpetuate the use of its dangerous products. It sounds like the kind of thing the tobacco industry would do, and it is. But it is also what the chemical industry has done, and will keep doing until we enact the Safe Chemicals Act.