Polluting babies? It just takes a phone call

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

By Alex Formuzis, EWG Vice-President for Media Relations

Raw political power was on display last week in the U.S. Senate. The "world's greatest deliberative body" had just completed two years of negotiations over legislation to safeguard the nation's food supply, and for the first time Congress was poised to take a moderate step in the right direction by restricting the use of the plastics chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and infants' sippy cups.

Early Wednesday (Nov. 17), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) seemed to have hammered out a deal with Republican leaders to include her BPA language in the Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510). But just as the Senate was about to vote on the bill, top officials of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) placed a couple of calls to key Republican senators objecting to the  provision. By afternoon the BPA language had been removed and it will likely remain out when the Senate votes on the final food safety bill next week.
Feinstein was quoted later as saying that several Republican senators had declined to support the BPA provision, including Richard Burr of North Carolina.
The chemical industry lobbyists didn't have to mount a grassroots campaign or organize millions of people to flood lawmakers' offices with phone calls, letters and emails. There were no paid ads in newspapers, Capitol Hill press conferences or a push for favorable media coverage of the industry's position on BPA. Those are the kinds of tools the public interest community employs to get its concerns heard by members of Congress.
Nope. Just a phone and a few phone numbers was all it took for the American Chemistry Council to kill a bipartisan agreement to remove this endocrine-disrupting chemical and possible carcinogen from baby bottles.
Ironically, it's virtually impossible to find a bottle or sippy cup made with BPA any more, as any parent of a baby or toddler knows. But the chemical industry's clout in Congress is so deep it can kill a provision seeking to do what the marketplace has largely already done -- presumably to avoid setting a precedent that could be used to target other toxic chemicals in the future.
So what will this mean for prospects of reforming the toothless federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in the next Congress?
Strangely, the very next day after his team had successfully deep-sixed the Feinstein provision, ACC president (and former Congressman) Cal Dooley told reporters during a conference call: "I just want to make it very clear that our Board of Directors reaffirmed our commitment to have TSCA reform..."
So which ACC should we believe? The one that has publicly called for TSCA reform for the past year and a half, or the one that worked behind the scenes to kill a deal that would have banned a single dangerous chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups?
The lesson is that we'll likely see both sides of the American Chemistry Council in future debates about reforming TSCA. In public the association will continue to call for reform - because groups like EWG and Safer Chemicals Healthy Families have done a great job of bringing the risks of some of these chemicals to light - but it will work behind closed doors to defeat anything they don't like - even limited steps like this one on BPA.
The next time I hear about some provision in a piece of legislation I don't like, I think I'll just call Congress and object. We'll see if the doors fly open as quickly as they did for the chemical guys. And if they don't, we'll see to it that the voices of EWG's nearly one million supporters are heard on Capitol Hill.
I'm reminded of Shakespeare's Henry V: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends."
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