More than 150 representatives of industry, government, academia and the environmental community voiced a broad consensus this week that the time has come for comprehensive reform of the outdated federal law created to ensure that Americans’ health is not threatened by the thousands of chemicals they encounter in daily life.
In the course of a daylong conference that participants repeatedly described as “historic,” a diverse group that has frequently had difficulty in finding common ground agreed that the 33-year old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is failing to do the job for either industry or the public. None minimized the challenge that lies ahead in reaching agreement on specifics, but most said the surprising degree of agreement on basic principles has created a powerful momentum for early action in Congress to update the law, potentially in the current term.
The session was highlighted by a morning speech by Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who one week earlier had released her agency’s own list of six principles it will follow in working with Congress to rewrite the law.
“We’re at a transformative moment,” Jackson said. Acknowledging “there are differences of opinion,” she added, “I salute you for getting together in the room to talk about it.”
“Talk about strange bedfellows,” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), as he looked around the room at the opening session. Like others who spoke during five panel discussions over the course of nine hours, Cook called the session unprecedented and congratulated all sides for their willingness to come together. EWG co-sponsored the session, held at the gleaming conference center of the Pew Charitable Trusts, in collaboration with the Pew Health Group and eight other environmental and industry groups.
“This is too important an issue for us not to take some risks,” Cook told the participants. “We cannot afford not to do this.”
Speaking for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, President and CEO Pam Bailey agreed that “this is really an historic opportunity. We are doing what we should be doing. This is the first step, but not the last step.”
And Cal Dooley, CEO of the American Chemistry Council, said “the only way we’re going to be successful is for a broad set of interests to come together” to present Congress with a comprehensive reform proposal.
Paying attention to children
Among the many broad points of agreement was the need to create risk-based standards for evaluating chemical risks that specifically take into account the greater vulnerability of children and other groups who may be affected by levels of toxic substances that pose little or no threat to adults. In her speech, EPA’s Jackson referred to studies conducted by EWG that detected up to 287 industrial chemicals in umbilical cord blood that nourishes unborn children.
Other key principles on which many speakers agreed included: the importance for assessing both existing and new chemicals based on both hazard and exposure data; the importance of focusing efforts first on substances judged to pose the greatest risk; the need for industry to provide regulators with more information about its products; and EPA’s lack of adequate staff and funding to properly evaluate the data.
EWG senior vice president for policy and communications Richard Wiles noted that in 2008, tens of millions of dollars were spent on studying levels of chemicals in human adults, fish and dirt, but “no dollars” were spent on testing children under age six. Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president for research, noted that a new chemical is synthesized every 2.6 seconds and the EPA approves two a day without adequate evaluation, particularly of the risks of low-dose, long-term exposure.
Prospects for action
During a late-day session on the prospects for updating the federal law, three of four panelists voiced optimism that the current Congress would be able to act on a consensus chemicals safety bill despite the pressures of pending health care and climate change legislation.
“A healthy chemical industry needs a regulatory structure that is effective and builds public confidence that the public’s health and individual health is protected,” said Neil C. Hawkins, Dow Chemical Co.’s vice president for sustainability and environmental health and safety.
“When you talk about children’s health, when you talk about pollution in people, this issue has entered the mainstream. People are concerned. This issue is a winner politically,” said Heather White, EWG’s chief of staff and general counsel. “In principle we’re very much aligned. The policy differences we can hammer out.”
Anne Rolfes, president of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental justice group that works with communities neighboring that state’s oil refineries and chemical plants, said, “It is good to talk to people who have different views. A lot of times we don’t get into the room or the conversation doesn’t keep going. These happen to be great times when a conversation can happen. I hope that can continue.” Last October Anne was recognized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a Community Health Leader.
“The time has come to fix this law that ought to have been fixed a long time ago,” said EWG President Cook as he summarized the day’s discussions.
The other conference sponsors were Rachel’s Network, Community Against Pollution, The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the American Chemistry Council, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Turner Foundation, the Soap and Detergent Association and the Consumer Specialty Products Association.