04/01/2015 07:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Children's Health for Corporate Profits- A Fair Compromise?

A "chemical safety" bill is rapidly moving through the U.S. Senate. Writing in Bloomberg, Paul Barrett decries the "hyperbole" of those of us who are calling for stronger health and environmental protections than the industry-backed bill delivers.

Barrett notes that many agree that our current chemical law is broken, but who could have believed the Senate would come up with a bill that could make things worse? This should come as no surprise, given that the proposal from Senators David Vitter and Tom Udall was recently revealed to have the chemical industry's digital fingerprints all over it.


Yet Barrett seems to believe that we are simply being naïve to think that a multi-billion dollar industry that spends lavishly on campaign contributions, including to the bill's author and supporters, and even more lavishly on lobbying would have undue influence over the political process in Washington. It's troubling that a river of money flowing from industry to Congress has become so common that it passes for normal.

Barrett's piece also uncritically takes up the narrative of the bill's supporters: that the Vitter-Udall proposal represents a good compromise offering the best chance for chemical safety. For more than one hundred years, chemical companies had free reign to sell their toxic products, with virtually no government action to protect our children and families from even the most deadly chemicals, The result: millions of our children and loved ones needlessly suffered from the chemical industry's poisonous products, like lead paint, arsenic-laced playground equipment, asbestos in hundreds of everyday items, and dozens of others. For the past forty years, government "chemical safety" rules did so little to protect us that these and around 80,000 other chemicals remain virtually unregulated.

Now comes the "Chemical Safety for the 21st Century" act -- the "compromise" bill. Under this bill, asbestos and other deadly chemicals will still be sold for many years to come. But according to Paul Barrett, experts in Washington say that the bill is a win for the environment. They say it requires EPA to conduct safety reviews of all chemicals. They say it replaces the bad old "cost-benefits" approach with a "pure, health-based safety standard."

So why are all public health and environmental groups (save one) still not supporting the bill? The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that the EPA "safety reviews" for even just a few hundred of the 80,000 chemicals in use today would take decades to complete under the timelines in the Vitter-Udall bill. They note that the bill could encourage EPA to deregulate many chemicals, listing them as safe without adequate data and leaving us all vulnerable. They also point out that the EPA is woefully undermanned and underfunded already.

Yet the bill fails to address the agency's funding gaps: it calls for a cap on the chemical industry's contribution to safety at $18 million. Currently the industry spends $60 million annually in lobbying (even more in the past two years, during the time the chemical safety bill was created), and millions more in campaign contributions. In 2014, just the top three chemical companies took in about $214 billion.

Still, isn't a "pure, health-based" standard, replacing a cost-benefits approach, a win for our children? Well, it might be, if that was really what the bill said. But in fact, the bill calls on EPA to account for "costs and benefits" in at least two sections (mentioning costs and benefits in two more), with one other section that suggests no consideration of costs. This is exactly the sort of legal wiggle room that chemical companies use to tie up regulations in the courts for decades. As Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh told a Senate committee hearing on the intricacies of the bill, "Senator, as one of your alumni once said, I am just a country lawyer, but I can tie you up in knots in the administrative process for years."

Yet we're told that the chemical companies have compromised as much as they can. So let's look at what the chemical industry wants, and what this bill gives them:

  • Bars state action: Chemical companies don't like state chemical safety rules, like laws that have successfully protect children from harmful chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), formaldehyde and dozens more. It's a challenge for business to adapt to different state rules. But many other federal laws allow stronger state action - this bill takes a radically opposite approach. It prohibits states from developing their own regulations on even the most dangerous chemicals once the EPA has initiated the review process (remember, that's the review process that the Union of Concerned Scientists says would take years).
  • Leaves EPA overworked and underfunded: The Vitter-Udall bill prohibits states from enforcing rules on dangerous chemicals - leaving it up to the underfunded EPA to protect all Americans from hundreds of chemicals used in thousands of products. State rules have successfully resulted in nationwide changes that protected children and families from dozens of chemicals in hundreds of products like jewelry, lunchboxes, baby bibs, candy and many others. All this would be left to EPA to police on their own.
  • Creates a wedge to weaken international rules: Stronger chemical safety rules are already being implemented in the EU and other countries. In fighting other strong international rules, such as EU rules on labeling GMO foods or banning hormones in beef, chemical companies (and their U.S. government allies) have pointed to weaker U.S. rules and have called for "harmonization" down to our less protective standards. If it is adopted, they will surely use the Vitter-Udall bill in the same way.

In short, the Vitter-Udall bill is perfect for chemical companies: it gives them the appearance of a strong, new chemical safety rule, while allowing them to sell dangerous chemicals for many years, prohibiting any future states actions, leaving EPA at their mercy, and giving them ammunition to attack stronger global rules. Our children's health should not be put at risk from this compromised bill.