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What’s in a Name? Safe for Kids, Not Just Chemicals

Monday, August 19, 2013

Everybody – environmentalists and chemical industry executives alike – wants to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. “Outdated” doesn’t begin to describe a law that was cumbersome and weak on the day President Ford signed it – Oct. 11, 1976, to be exact – the day the Chinese government arrested the Gang of Four and the top-selling single was Disco Duck Part I.  

After waiting 36 years for effective controls on dangerous chemicals, Americans deserve much more than the so-called “bipartisan reform” proposal now before Congress. Even the bill’s name – Chemical Safety Improvement Act – signals an unacceptably weak response to the problem of keeping dangerous industrial chemicals out of consumer products. Back in 2005, when the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., put the issue on the table, he called his bill the Kid Safe Chemicals Act. Other versions, including the bill introduced in April 2013, were titled “The Safe Chemicals Act.” These bills contained strong protections for children and other vulnerable populations such as the elderly and workers near chemical plants. The subtle but insidious title change in the current proposal confines the discussion to a “mere improvement” of current law, instead of ensuring that the products we bring into our homes are truly safe for our kids.

The word “children” is nowhere in the bill now before Congress. In contrast, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013 mentions the word “children” 15 times.

Parents are worried, and rightly so. EWG’s tests of umbilical cord blood in 2005 and 2009 documented that babies are born pre-polluted with toxic chemicals, ranging from stain repellents on upholstery to chemicals in electronic equipment. Earlier this year, the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based environmental health group, discovered that preschoolers are being exposed to flame retardants in nap mats. Nap mats!

As EWG President Ken Cook detailed before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last month, the proposed Chemical Safety Improvement Act is in some ways even worse than the 1976 law. The bill would not prevent chemical companies from flooding the market with thousands of new chemicals that have not been tested for health dangers to people, particularly kids and other vulnerable groups. And it would erect a virtually impenetrable grid of legal obstacles that would effectively prevent federal regulators, responsible state and local officials and injured individuals from fighting back against toxic polluters.  

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the committee, is aiming to steer Congress to real reform. Her committee’s hearing last month successfully changed the conversation from red tape and regulations to the pollution in people and protection of children’s health.

The chemical industry argues that paperwork requirements are burdensome and wants to shake free of them in order to promote innovation. We all believe in innovation. But true innovation should mean making sure that chemicals are safe for all of us. Americans don’t want further exposures to chemicals that are toxic, that disrupt their hormone systems in subtle ways that scientists are only starting to understand and that build up in the food chain and our bodies. 

EWG will fight to keep children’s health and futures at the forefront of the debate on Capitol Hill. If chemicals are safe for kids, they’ll be safe for all of us.

And here’s an idea – maybe we could even mention kids in the bill.