Who Do You Trust on REAL Reform: The Chemical Industry or 450 Environmental and Public Health Orgs?

04/02/2015 12:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

In 1989, a 42-year-old woman with a 6-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer -- a tumor missed on a mammogram a few months earlier. She was told to go home and put her affairs in order.

For Andrea Martin that meant changing the world in the time she had left and leaving a legacy of reduced odds of breast cancer for her daughter. She passed the Breast Cancer Fund to me in 2001 and passed away two years later.

Andrea asked a key question in her decade of work: What is causing the dramatic increase in breast cancer incidence? She dared to question the role of the environment -- beyond all the known, traditional risk factors -- and she honed in on toxic chemicals and radiation. I inherited her question and dedicated my service to answering it on behalf of the quarter of a million women and men who will be diagnosed with breast cancer and the 40,000 families who will lose someone to this devastating disease this year.

We now know that the answer to Andrea's question is unequivocal: Exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation has a huge impact in increasing breast cancer incidence and recurrence. And while there are things each of us can do every day to reduce our personal breast cancer risk, we know that individual action is not enough. We need systemic change.

That's why the Breast Cancer Fund has been working to reform our failed federal chemical safety law and to create a system that will protect the health and safety of our families.

Most Americans are shocked to learn that the federal government does not ensure that the chemicals we are exposed to every day, all day are safe.

The current Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the law responsible for regulating all industrial chemicals in commerce, with the exception of those uses regulated by the FDA, such as cosmetics and food packaging. Passed in 1976, the law has completely failed to protect the American public from toxic chemicals, even those as dangerous as asbestos. While there are more than 85,000 chemicals currently registered for use, only five have been banned or regulated in the past 39 years.

Consumer demand for safer products has led Congress into a heated debate about how to reform and update the TSCA. That debate has reached a critical juncture: Will Congress move forward with a bill that does more to protect the chemical industry or a bill that will truly put the health of the American public first?

Two Bills, Two Priorities

Numerous bills have been written purporting to reform TSCA, including two bills introduced just last week. One bill, which was literally drafted by the chemical industry would make a bad situation even worse when it comes to TSCA. This bill, introduced by Senators Tom Udall, D-N.M., and David Vitter, R-La., undermines what few health protections from toxic chemicals now exist, and disregards years of work by health care professionals, scientists, public health advocates and state legislators to enact meaningful reform and to prevent diseases linked to chemical exposure. We have learned that this bill was not only deeply influenced by the chemical industry, but reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered that the document was actually written and created by the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry's main lobbying group.

Who do you trust? Consumers demanding safe products or the American chemical industry lobby? Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., hit the nail on the head: "Call me old-fashioned, but a bill to protect the public from harmful chemicals should not be written by chemical industry lobbyists."

Congress needs to put the health of Americans ahead of chemical industry interests.

One of the biggest flaws in the Udall-Vitter bill is that it prohibits states from passing and enforcing policies protecting the public from chemicals. In other words, it ties the hands of states that have been active on chemical safety. States have taken the lead in regulating chemicals, passing 169 laws in 35 states. These laws play a critical role in protecting the health and welfare of citizens, and not just in their own states. Since companies don't want to make different products for different markets, state laws impact the market nationwide, providing benefits to all Americans.

This infringement on the states' ability to act is why attorneys general from nine states have written the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in opposition to the Udall-Vitter bill. In addition to infringing on states' rights, the bill would make it even harder for the EPA to regulate consumer products, a major source of exposure to chemicals and concern for parents. The bill would also impede the ability of the EPA to implement safeguards to stop toxic chemicals coming into the country in products made in China and other countries.

An alternative bill, introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., represents real reform that honors the millions of people who have faced breast cancer and other serious diseases linked to chemical exposures. This bill would require rapid review of high concern toxic chemicals, preserve the EPA's authority to regulate consumer products and protect the right of states to more fully protect their citizens from unsafe chemical exposures linked to increasing rates of breast cancer and other diseases. Chemical companies would be held responsibility for the costs associated with testing chemicals for health safety, as opposed to American taxpayers who currently pay for the billions of dollars in health spending associated with chemical exposures. More than 450 environment, public health and social justice groups support the Boxer-Markey bill and oppose the Udall/Vitter bill.

Time for REAL Reform

If you know someone with a learning disability, if you know someone with autism, if you know someone with infertility, if you know someone with breast cancer, if you know someone with any number of other diseases linked to chemical exposures -- you should oppose the Udall/Vitter bill and support the Boxer/Markey bill. Your lawmakers need to hear from you. It's time for REAL reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act that prioritizes the health of the American public over the interests of the chemical industry.

Act now to make 2015 the year Congress fixes the nation's broken system for managing the safety of chemicals.