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With Senator Frank Lautenberg's Death, What Happens to His Crucial Fight to Protect Us from Harmful Chemicals?

His most enduring legacy should have been the passage of the Safe Chemicals Act that has been squashed by pressure and lobbying by the chemical industry.

When Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) died Monday morning at age 89, the Senate lost its oldest member, (he was also the last WWII veteran), and proponents of toxic chemical safety, gun safety, and other protections lost a champion. His most enduring legacy should have been the passage of the Safe Chemicals Act he first introduced in 2010. But due to pressure and lobbying by the chemical industry, the original version of the bill never made it to the Senate floor for a vote despite Lautenberg’s committed work (in alliance with a coalition of environment groups) to get a vote on it every year from 2010 to 2012.

The American Chemistry Council opposed the bill, and via lobbyists, campaign contributions, and paid advertising for select candidates stalled forward momentum. According to the report Toxic Spending issued by Common Cause:

Since 1990, the chemical industry has donated $117 million to candidates for federal office. From 2011 through September 2012, (author’s note: the critical window for passage of the Safe Chemicals Act) the chemical industry contributed $10 million to candidates for federal office. From 2005 through September 2012, the industry gave $39 million to candidates for federal office, and from 2005 through June 2012 it spent $333 million on lobbying at the federal level. Since December 2011, the chemical industry has also spent at least $2.8 million on political advertising in at least nineteen different campaigns.

A casualty of the breakdown in government, Lautenberg’s original bill aimed to revise the oldest, most outdated, and most ineffective environmental law on the books, the Toxic Substances Safety Act (TSCA)— which The New York Times recently called “a toothless law on toxic chemicals.”

With documented increases in cancer, asthma and spectrum disorders attributable (at least in part) to toxic chemical exposures, Lautenberg’s Safe Chemical Act met the need for vastly improved legislation to study and regulate toxic chemicals. It would have required “testing of all industrial chemicals… [to put)]…the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe in order stay on the market. Under current policy, the EPA can only call for safety testing after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous.”

Though it passed in Senate committee in July 2012, the bill never reached the Senate floor. Two weeks ago, Lautenberg (who had been in declining health at least since early 2013) made his last attempt to get some form of legislation through. His new bi-partisan bill, introduced along with David Vitter (R-LA) was hailed as a compromise, and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But the Environmental Working Group (EWG) critiqued the new bill as too much of a compromise, far from the bill that Lautenberg first championed. Vitter, the revised bill’s bi-partisan Republican sponsor, received over $300,000 in paid political advertising from the chemical industry in 2012 alone.

Some background: When the government enacted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, the law aimed at guaranteeing the safety of the over 85,000 untested chemicals in wide use—but it fell far short. Over 35 years later, Lautenberg pointed out that fewer than two hundred chemicals had been studied, with only five chemicals banned. Why the delay? Industry pushback, lawsuits, revolving door regulators, and lobbying hampered the EPA in enforcing it.

Although developing safer chemical formulations may be better for business long term, in the short term, determining a toxic chemical’s human health effects can affect chemical companies’ quarterly bottom lines. If chemicals (or their waste or byproducts) produce undesirable health risks, then manufacturers have to spend millions reformulating them or finding ways to dispose of them. Instead of incurring that expense, it’s cheaper for companies to put scientists on the payroll, followed by an army of lobbyists to persuade Congress, along with public relations firms to sell the public.   Government regulators then use “turn and point” science when they point to industry-sponsored scientific claims of safety. The problem is that independent science and “turn and point” science (which David Murphy of Food Democracy Now! calls “cigarette science”) don’t produce the same results.

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