The Ride to Reform

EHSC Moms bus to Washington. D.C. spring 2012

In our office yesterday, staff members shared a memory. It was four years ago this spring that a group of two-dozen Maine moms (along with some grandparents, college students, and others) boarded a bus with us. We headed down the highway to Washington, D.C., to join hundreds of other advocates who had come from all over the country to talk to members of Congress about the importance of overhauling the nation’s broken chemical safety system.

The moms weren’t happy that Congress had repeatedly heeded the aggressive opposition of chemical industry lobbyists over many years, and had failed to pass legislation to reform the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, our nation’s main law governing chemical regulation.

We brought with us on that 2012 bus trip more than 2,500 petition signatures from Maine people, plus a resolution passed unanimously by the Maine Legislature calling on Congress to modernize the broken federal chemical law. Maine’s senators and representatives met with us, listening to personal stories of concern about the impacts of harmful chemicals on their children’s health and in their own homes and workplaces. 

Of all the state groups that joined the chemical-safety advocacy brigade in the nation’s capital that spring, Maine boasted the largest and most vocal group of all.

This week, the nearly last step in landmark chemical-safety regulation finally came when the United States Senate followed the U.S. House of Representatives in approving legislation to overhaul TSCA and strengthen federal regulation of toxic chemicals. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law very soon.

The “reform” strengthens current law in many respects. Most significant is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now has the mandate and firm deadlines to protect the health of pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable groups from dangerous chemicals in everyday products.

Yet, the pace of federal action will be very slow under the new law. EPA can take five to seven years to determine the safety of each chemical while it works on about 20 at a time of the worst chemicals. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of untested chemicals remain in commerce, along with thousands of known hazardous substances. 

For that reason, robust state leadership will be needed to address chemicals that EPA has not yet considered. Despite some erosion in state authority under the new law, states remain free to restrict chemical uses that EPA hasn’t acted on. And states can always require manufacturers to disclose which chemicals are in consumer products and to search for safer alternatives. 

To drive the transition to safer chemicals will take strong leadership among the states, our international trading partners, and business leaders in the marketplace. With adequate funding and motivation, the EPA, under the new federal law, will at last join this collective effort to replace dangerous chemicals with safer substitutes. 

Today, not only do we salute the group of Mainers who boarded the bus with us four years ago, we applaud everyone who joined us anywhere along the decade-long journey for TSCA reform. 

You spoke out, wrote letters, called your government representatives, and shared your stories. You compelled Congress to finally create new federal authority to prevent harm and reduce the burden of disease, disability, and early death caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in our daily lives. In your home states, your advocacy and action will continue to be effective. Nice work! Thank you.