Countdown to Earth Day: Chemical Reform is Closer Today!

06/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The original Earth Day of 1970 ushered in a decade of progress in protecting public health and the environment. Landmark laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act passed in the years that followed the first Earth Day celebration. We can thank the forward-thinking lawmakers and the active public from that era for the fact that our rivers no longer catch fire, and that the air in many neighborhoods (but alas, not all) is clearer and more breathable.

But the legacy of Earth Day 1970 also left us with a legacy problem: Toxic chemicals.

Maybe it was because the momentum from the first Earth Day began to fade in 1976, but the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which passed in that year, was a signature flop. As my colleague, Daniel Rosenberg explains in his excellent summary of the flaws in this law:

Poor TSCA.  It was intended to stem the rising tide of toxic chemicals to which the public was regularly exposed, in their homes, the workplace and the marketplace.  Unfortunately, it started off on the wrong foot , grandfathering the 62,000 chemicals then in use out of new testing and review for safety.  In addition, the law was written in a way that has made it extremely difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to establish which chemicals may be harmful and impose regulatory controls on even those that are widely known to be unsafe – carcinogens like asbestos for example – to which people continue to be widely exposed.  The list of TSCA’s problems and failures is long, and the cumulative result of those failures is that, 40 years after Earth Day, we continue to be in the dark about the health and environmental effects of thousands of chemicals in use in all kinds of products, and we don’t really have a functioning system for addressing those chemicals that are unsafe or for protecting the public.

How right he is. Thanks to this worthless 34-year-old law, I have spent my entire professional career treating patients exposed to toxic chemicals in their workplaces, communities, and homes, and researching the health effects of chemicals because so little information is available about what chemicals are in our bodies and what they are doing to our health.

Now, as we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, things may be about to change.

Today, Senator Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010. At the same time, Representatives Rush and Waxman introduced the draft Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 [pdf alert]. Both of these bills represent major advances over the status quo. They will give the public much more information about chemicals in the environment and in products, they will require companies to prove that chemicals are safe, and they will authorize EPA to take strong action to address threats to human health and the environment.

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm sitting down to give both of these bills a very close read. After all, they need to get the science right if this law is really going to work. There are already some issues that need to be fixed if we really want to be sure children will be protected from toxic chemicals. For example, the current legislation could:

  • Allow hundreds of new chemicals to enter the market and be used in products without first being tested and shown to be safe.
  • Fail to immediately restrict production and use of the most dangerous chemicals, such as persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals.
  • Overlook important recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences about how EPA should determine the safety of chemicals.

 There's still a long road ahead until this important job is done. We will need plenty of help to remind legislators that although the chemical companies may have lots of paid lobbyists, their constituents really care about safe chemicals and safe families. More information about the law and about hazardous chemicals is available from NRDC here. Join or get updates from the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition.