Congress Has the Chance to Make Our Lives Less Toxic

By Sarah Vogel

Americans live in a soup of chemicals. Our couches, clothes and cleaning products carry potential hazards. Babies are born, literally, with industrial chemicals in their blood because of exposures their mothers experience during pregnancy.

This unacceptable situation cannot be viewed as just the price we pay for living in the modern world. It’s a direct result of America’s badly broken chemical safety law, which environmentalists and public health advocates have been trying to fix for decades, to no avail. In the meantime, chemicals that can increase the risks of cancer, Parkinson’s, and developmental disabilities are found in products sold everywhere.

Congress is on the verge of passing a major reform that actually fixes the most serious problems of the current regulatory system.

This sounds like a familiar story so far — threats to our health, risks to our kids, and Congress unable to act. But this time there’s a twist: Congress is on the verge of passing a major reform that actually fixes the most serious problems of the current regulatory system.


Getting here was far from easy. It took decades of activist pressure and more than three years of tough negotiations. The environmental champions who fought for the bill — including Senators Tom Udall, Jeff Merkley, Sheldon Whitehouse, Ed Markey and Barbara Boxer and Representatives Diana DeGette and Gene Green — knew that fixing the law was urgent and would require compromise, but they also knew the result had to be significantly improved protections from toxic chemicals for all of us.

The emerging final bill — known as the Lautenberg Act in honor of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who introduced the first reform bill over a decade ago — will ultimately require a safety review for all chemicals in use today. Incredibly, under current law there are tens of thousands of chemicals that have never been evaluated for their safety. While there’s a huge backlog of chemicals, EPA will now have a mandate to get started and sets aggressive deadlines for action. And, just as importantly, all new chemicals will now be required to pass a safety review before they ever hit the store shelves. EPA will have new authority to require chemicals to be tested and to restrict those found to pose risks.

The Lautenberg Act will also explicitly require protection for those most at risk from toxic chemicals, including kids and pregnant women. Scientists have long known that developing children are at greatest risk from chemical exposure, and now EPA will finally have the power and mandate to start protecting them.

Scientists have long known that developing children are at greatest risk from chemical exposure, and now EPA will finally have the power and mandate to start protecting them.

The imminent deal improves transparency — finally imposing real checks on the overuse of “confidential business information” claims to hide information from the public. It expands access by states, health professional and first responders to health and safety information. It strikes a balance between retaining the ability of companies to keep truly proprietary information confidential and promoting the public’s right to know.

The bill will also balance federal and state authority. It keeps all prior state actions on chemicals in place, preserving most types of state actions on chemicals, and supplants state authority to restrict a chemical only when EPA takes up that same chemical for a full safety review.

But while this bill marks progress, it is the product of compromise and years of negotiations among many different stakeholders — from public health and environmental advocates to consumer product companies and chemical companies. As in all major environmental laws, nobody got everything they wanted.

For the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), this final agreement will represent real progress and we firmly agree with EPA and the Administration that the Lautenberg Act will be considerably stronger than current law.

These days, it’s often difficult to imagine that diverse interest groups and political parties can actually come together and find a way forward to improve our lives. The Lautenberg Act represents a rare opportunity to show there is still the appetite and courage to make this possible. Perhaps the Lautenberg Act will not only begin to better protect us from dangers of hazardous chemicals, but make our politics a little less toxic, too.


Sarah Vogel, PhD is Vice President of the Health Program at Environmental Defense Fund

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