In my last column (“A reform of substance,” Jan. 29), I discussed the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal law that gives our Environmental Protection Agency the power to make sure that chemicals released into the environment pose little threat to human health. Since its passage in 1976, it has resulted in the ban of nine chemicals. “Good on the EPA!” you might think, as you take a swig from your plastic water bottle. But those nine chemicals are a woefully small cluster in a constellation of over 80,000 chemicals currently on the market, most of which have never been tested.
There are a couple reasons for this. When TSCA was passed, some 60,000 chemicals were grandfathered into the program, assumed to be safe since they were already on the market. These chemicals have yet to be tested. What’s more, the onus is on the EPA to decide if a newly introduced chemical poses an “unreasonable risk,” rather than on chemical manufacturers to prove that their products almost certainly pose “no harm.” Given administrative and bureaucratic constraints, that’s hard to do and has very little impact on whether a chemical makes it into the market.
In response to inadequate federal regulations, many states have implemented their own measures to regulate dangerous chemicals. California’s Proposition 65, passed in 1986, created a list of chemicals that cause cancer, lead to birth defects or are otherwise hazardous. Businesses cannot knowingly expose customers to chemicals on this list. Likewise, Connecticut took an early lead in banning Bisphenol A — a plastic that disrupts human hormones — from food containers, jars of baby food and the paper on which receipts are printed.
For the past four years, the Connecticut General Assembly has tried to pass “an act concerning chemicals of high concern to children,” which would create an inventory of chemicals deemed hazardous much in the way that California has done. In the bill’s most recent iteration, Connecticut’s public health commissioner would report on this list of chemicals, offering recommendations on how to protect children from risky chemicals. It hasn’t passed yet, but it would be a step in the right direction.
The problem is that these state laws are under attack.
Enter the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, the bill poised to bring TSCA up to speed. But it’s not without problems. In fact, one provision of the bill would wipe away all state-level laws that regulate chemicals and replace them with federal standards. That means states with stronger enforcement mechanisms would be required to go back to weaker ones. Businesses frequently argue that a state-by-state patchwork of regulations makes it impossible to bring products to market in a way that makes sense for their bottom line. But are a few extra hoops to jump through so bad when human health is at stake?
To be sure, sometimes federal laws are more efficient for solving environmental problems. Federal legislation that regulates the head-scratching array of sell-by (or use-by, or best-before, or freshest-before, etc.) labels might reduce consumer confusion and prevent the disposal of food that’s perfectly fine to eat. But these are cases where policy is strengthened, not weakened.
In its current form, the TSCA reform bill repeats the same errors that TSCA originally suffered from, in large part because it weakens state laws that protect the environment. Should the bill come across President Obama’s desk, he might want to consider the progress it could undo before signing it.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .