Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

House Members, Witnesses Clash Over Chemicals Regulation

photo by Lindsay Talley

At a packed hearing before a key House subcommittee, Environmental Working Group President and co-founder Ken Cook called on Congress yesterday (July 29) to pass tough new legislation to repair a “broken toxic chemicals policy” that is currently so weak “the American public has lost confidence that the products they are using, the chemicals they are being exposed to, are safe.”

Cook voiced broad support for the House measure (H.R. 5820), saying it “would squarely place the burden of proof on industry to show that its products are safe for public health and vulnerable populations,” but he urged revisions to give highest priority for safety reviews to chemicals detected in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. He noted that cord blood tests conducted by EWG have shown that babies are born “pre-polluted” by nearly 300 chemicals, “including BPA, fire retardants, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides that were banned more than 30 years ago.”

He noted that earlier this year the President’s Cancer Panel of cancer experts similarly declared in its annual report that “to a disturbing extent, babies are being born pre-polluted.”

EWG has been a leading advocate for fundamental reform of the 34-year old and deeply flawed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Cook told the subcommittee:

Because TSCA leaves the government so stunningly powerless to deal with the soup of toxic chemicals in the environment and, indeed, in the blood of all of us, the American public has lost confidence, has lost trust, that the products they are using, the chemicals they are being exposed to, are safe.

Now the chemical industry wants a law strong law behind it, not a feeble law under foot.

Within the environmental community, TSCA was the crazy aunt the family didn’t talk about and tried to forget—with the exception of the Environmental Defense Fund, which to its great credit maintained a strong focus on a statute that most everyone else ignored.

Other witnesses also supported the major elements of the pending bill, including Assistant Administrator Steve Owens of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Senior Scientist Richard A. Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund; Dr. Mark A. Mitchell, president of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice; and Howard Williams, an executive with a manufacturer of construction materials.

Major provisions of the bill would require chemical makers to conduct testing to prove their products are safe and close loopholes that currently allow industry to keep secret crucial data, including safety studies, about many toxic substances.

Two witnesses representing industry voiced strong objections to key provisions while insisting that they favor reform of the law and would work toward that end. Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, said the bill’s proposed safety standard for chemicals “sets an impossibly high hurdle” and would “stifle the manufacturing sector.” And Beth D. Bosley, speaking for the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, said the bill is “overreaching and unworkable” and will “drive innovation and manufacturing from our shores.”

Comments and questions by the nearly 20 House members who attended the nearly three-hour hearing of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection highlighted a sharp partisan divide between those voicing the need for stronger protections against toxic chemicals and those arguing that stronger regulation would kill jobs in an already wobbly economy. Supporters of reform argued that industry would respond to stronger regulation with innovations that would create, not destroy, jobs.

Reps. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman, and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the parent Committee on Energy and Commerce, co-sponsored the pending bill along with three other House members.

“Americans are exposed to a staggering number and variety of chemicals – even before birth,” Waxman said in his opening remarks, “yet consumers lack even basic information about these chemical exposures. And the federal government is no less in the dark.”

Rush said he hoped to achieve “a bill that all sides won’t necessarily fall in love with, but a bill that all sides can live with.”

Ranking Republican member Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) set the contrary theme voiced by a number of Republicans, scoring the bill with words including “cumbersome,” “unworkable,” “ineffective,” and “overly broad.”

If the bill becomes law, Whitfield said, “we would be exporting innovation and jobs instead of products.”

A handful of Democrats called for caution in finding the right balance between protecting the public without discouraging innovation.

Perhaps the most unexpected testimony of the day came from Howard Williams, vice-president and general manager of the Pennsylvania Division of Construction Specialties, Inc., a maker of building products for commercial construction. Williams described his firm’s difficulties in obtaining detailed information about the chemicals in the materials it buys, focusing particular on PBTs (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals) and carcinogens.

“Environmentally preferable and green building standards reward those whose materials have high amounts of recycled content,” Williams noted, but if the original materials contain long-lasting PBT chemicals, this has the unintended effect of recycling these toxic materials “from one generation to another.”

Describing himself as a Republican from a conservative area of Pennsylvania, Williams said:

“Given the economic and population multipliers, coupled with America’s global reach, H.R. 5820 becomes one of the more beneficially impactful pieces of legislation of our generation.”

In his prepared testimony, EWG’s Cook gave the committee a point-by-point analysis of language in the proposed bill. Among his other key points:

  • EWG strongly supports language that would make “reasonable certainty of no harm” the safety standard for existing and new chemicals and require EPA “to consider aggregate exposures and all exposure routes” when evaluating whether a chemical meets that standard.
  • EWG also supports a requirement that manufacturers provide EPA with “key data sets” including specified information about the characteristics of every chemical.
  • EWG commends language that immediately places 19 well-known toxic chemicals on a priority list for rapid review that EPA would develop.
  • EWG calls for strengthening language in the bill that would require EPA to focus on poor and minority communities that are “disproportionately affected by industrial pollution.”
  • EWG strongly supports language that would limit industry’s ability to hide key information about its products under the cloak of  “confidential business information,” particularly with regard to health and safety studies.
  • EWG would like to tighten a provision that gives EPA “broad discretion” to exempt certain chemicals or mixtures from the minimum data set, safety standard and reporting processes in the bill.
  • EWG applauds language that would greatly expand EPA’s authority to conduct inspections and issue subpoenas to chemical facilities to ensure compliance with the law.

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2 Responses to “House Members, Witnesses Clash Over Chemicals Regulation”

  1. EllianaMA says:

    Thank you for everything that you do.

  2. John Smithe says:

    Boy, sure didn’t see that one coming. Never thought in a million years Republicans would be disapproving of such a bill. “Jobs, jobs, jobs”.Even if we had grown jobs and come out of an economic recession there would just be another counterargument.

    They should just come out tomorrow and say they’re for child labor and no minimum wage or any other (gasp) progressive/liberal “agenda”. Human rights, decent wage and workspace, who needs ’em right? “We need to allow companies to do whatever they want with their employees so that we can compete with China”. Get a grip. While you’re at it, try not to let that pesky little thing called science get in your way.

    Till then I guess us lowly, deviant progressives will keep ourselves ignorant with our measly science. Thanks Ed for helping us see past our stupidity.

    I hate becoming so partisan or one sided but the more ignorance or pure disassociation with science (but surely never economics) for industry point scoring the more resentful one becomes, at least in my case.