01/16/2014 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

West Virginia Spill Highlights Need for Toxic Chemical Reform


Policy debates in Washington can feel a world away from people's daily lives, but an unfortunate event in West Virginia is bringing home just how important they can be. Earlier this week, more than 300,000 West Virginians were without access to clean water after a chemical used to wash coal spilled into a nearby river. This is a chemical we know little about, and it's shining a bright light on the need to reform our nation's outdated toxic chemical laws.

This obscure chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, was causing real health problems as the spill unfolded. Hundreds of residents reported health concerns such as nausea, and at least 10 people have been hospitalized. And it became clear just how little we know about the health risks this chemical poses -- there's not even a single publicly available health study on it.

West Virginia has a poor track record of enforcing the Clean Water Act, and federal prosecutors are now investigating whether Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill, violated the landmark water pollution law. This is on top of the fact that neither federal nor state officials have inspected this chemical storage facility since 1991. As respondents continue the clean up, the short-term and long-term ecological impacts this chemical spill may have on the surrounding area remain unknown.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this spill, but one thing is clear: our chemical regulatory system is broken. Our nation's primary chemical law -- the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) -- was passed in 1976. Over the years, it's become outdated and is now so flawed that many chemicals, including the one involved in this spill, go virtually unregulated.

Many of these chemicals could pose a major risk to public health. There's a growing body of research linking some toxic chemicals to alarming health problems, including childhood cancers, infertility, and learning disabilities.

It's time our laws catch up to the science. While there have been some recent efforts in Congress to update the Toxic Substances Control Act, this issue has taken on new urgency following the chemical spill in West Virginia.

Given what the American people are seeing play out on their TV screens, you may think it would be difficult for anyone in Congress not to act. But corporate polluters and their allies in Washington have fought tooth and nail over the years to prevent any additional federal oversight and environmental safeguards. There's no reason to think they'd stop now.

Times have changed a lot since President Ford was in office, but our nation's primary toxic chemicals law has not. Republicans and Democrats in Washington should redouble their efforts to finally reform the Toxic Substances Control Act in a way that truly protects public health. We can't afford to wait until the next crisis for Congress to act.