Independence Day for Toxic Chemicals?


As we celebrate the 4th of July, I don't have to reach very far to connect today's debate on chemical safety reform with the themes of freedom and independence. That's because right now, a bill before the US Senate would strip away an important right from state governments: the right to protect their own citizens from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Let's back up for a moment. There is no doubt that TSCA, the current US law governing chemicals is outdated and ineffective, and requires reform. Reform should provide the US EPA with real authority to protect vulnerable populations from harmful exposures to toxic chemicals, and that the EPA should be evaluating the safety of chemicals using the best science. Under the current law, the EPA has only been able to evaluate the safety of about 200 chemicals out of over 80,000 that exist in the market, and doesn't even have the authority to restrict asbestos - so that tells you something.

But while we work to reform TSCA, we must also avoid a situation in which the federal government overreaches on state authority, blocking states from taking action on chemicals that the US EPA hasn't even acted on yet. When the federal government overrides the states on something, its called "preemption." 

Here's how preemption would work under S. 697, the TSCA reform bill currently before the US Senate. Under this bill, the EPA will review the safety of 25 chemicals every 8 years. (This is a very slow schedule, considering that over 80,000 chemicals exist on the market, with new chemicals being introduced all the time.) While the EPA moves along at a snail's pace, states would be blocked from restricting any of those 25 chemicals.

That means that the chemicals that are the highest priority because they made the US EPA's list of top 25 will be off limits to states who want to enact phase-outs of those chemicals at home.

We have a lot to lose if the preemption provision in S. 679 passes into law. 

In Maine, its possible that we would never have been able to pass the laws that have helped keep our people safer: we've phased out BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups in 2011, and brominated flame retardant chemicals from furniture and other products in 2006 - all of this could have been blocked if this federal preemption had been in place. This year we saw dozens of states around the country passing laws to phase out other toxic flame retardants from household products. This is progress we can't afford to lose.

States should have the freedom to act on the science that is there in front of us. We shouldn't be delayed by the federal government's own slow processes.

The good news is that there is another reform proposal on the table. The House version of TSCA reform, H.R. 2576, just passed the US House by a walloping 398 - 1 vote, would get our US EPA on track to start evaluating the safety of chemicals every year, while leaving the states to continue doing their own work. There's more work to be done to improve this bill too, but its a much better starting point for overhauling our chemical safety laws. 

So enjoy your July 4th holiday, and when we return we'll be calling on Congress to pass a law that gives states real freedom to take action on the worst chemicals that threaten our health.