This week's Chicago Tribune investigative series on flame retardant chemicals has revealed deeply disturbing practices at the heart of the chemical industry. The series chronicles flat-out lies by chemical industry witnesses before state legislatures and deliberate misrepresentation of science, all in service of a successful campaign to avoid government and public oversight. Sound familiar? It's the Big Tobacco playbook. In fact, many of the tactics, including faking the story of dead baby (I kid you not) would even make a tobacco lobbyist blush.
Today's story focuses on the ongoing policy failures that allow these deceptive practices to continue unchecked, especially the Toxic Substances Control Act. It also chronicles how the industry has not only blocked reform in Congress, but has successfully influenced the White House to block the limited reforms that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has attempted.
The fabrications, front groups, deliberate distortions of science, and political bullying documented in the stories have been sustained over years and across the country. They are not isolated incidents. (In fact the article left out some particularly ugly battles in Maine and Maryland.) Similarly, the companies the Tribune implicates are not on the periphery of the industry, but in its mainstream, playing major roles in the American Chemistry Council. Until this year, Albemarle's CEO even chaired the ACC board committee that set strategy for federal policy on chemical safety.
Our current chemical safety policy amounts to an honor system and it's now perfectly clear that too many of these companies simply have no honor. It is past time for Congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act by Senator Lautenberg, which addresses every major failure of current policy: the lack of independent health and safety information about most chemicals, excessive secrecy, and the lack of action on even the most notorious chemicals.
It is also past time for the White House to stop blocking the more limited reforms that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has proposed. The story of how the White House has stymied Jackson hasn't been told very much but it is quite tragic. Jackson's efforts are restrained by the limits of current law, nevertheless, they have all been small, sensible moves toward greater scrutiny of the chemicals that end up in our homes and too often in our bodies. Her most recent proposal would reveal health and safety information that has been kept secret under an abuse of the current law. The White House should approve it without delay so that the public can better evaluate the dangers from chemicals. This is something they can do about the problem that doesn't require cooperation from Congress.
In the meantime, please take a moment to read the Tribune series. It's a great example of old-fashioned, muckraking journalism at its very best.