June 5, 2013 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

When Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) passed away Monday at the age of 89, the Senate lost one of its longest-serving members and the US lost a public-health champion. Brad Plumer at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog describes several of Senator Lautenberg’s achievements, including banning smoking on airplanes, preventing people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning guns, and requiring states to raise their drinking ages to 21 and lower the drunk-driving blood alcohol threshold from .10 to .08. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin writes about Lautenberg’s environmental achievements:

Lautenberg’s legacy includes several key laws that protect Americans from exposure to dangerous chemicals, such as the one starting EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory program. That program compels companies to disclose exactly what chemicals they are emitting through their operations: it has shed light on sources of pollution across the country, and prompted many firms to install stricter controls. He also managed to extend the “polluter pays” funding mechanism for the Superfund program from 1990 to 1995 through a budget reconciliation bill, and authored legislation easing the cleanup of industrial sites known as brown fields.

Senator Lautenberg also worked to establish and fund the US Chemical Safety Board. In a statement, CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso noted that Lautenberg is widely considered to be the father of the agency and described the Senator’s drive for improving chemical safety:

It was due to the Senator’s commitment to the safety of workers and the surrounding community that the CSB received its first funding following a violent, reactive chemical explosion that occurred in 1995 in Lodi, New Jersey, fatally injuring five workers. The accident happened only a few miles from the Paterson neighborhoods where Senator Lautenberg was born in 1924 and grew up. Chemical safety was never far from Senator Lautenberg’s mind, and in May 2002 while he was briefly out of the Senate, he returned to Paterson City Hall to speak at a CSB public meeting on reactive chemical hazards. As he said then:

“I was born just a few blocks from here, and I was able to witness, painfully and directly, what happens when working people are exposed to a dangerous environment …. And this city is a proud city. But what it needs to know, like the other industrial cities in this country, that when they go to work, that the only thing that they have to be concerned about is making the product, and getting out at the end of the day, and enjoying themselves, and enjoying their families. And so the work you are doing is, frankly, essential.”

Through the end of his life, Senator Lautenberg was dedicated to protecting the public from  chemical hazards. Juliet Eilperin explains:

Ironically, Lautenberg had been on the cusp of realizing one of long-sought goals: an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 37-year-old law which has done little to boost federal oversight of harmful chemicals. Lautenberg recently brokered a bipartisan compromise with Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee that would give the Environmental Protection Agency the power to review chemicals now on the market, and require testing when officials have concerns a substance poses a health risk. Before new chemicals could be offered for commercial sale, EPA would have to conclude they were likely to be safe.

Rafael Moure-Eraso summed it up well by saying “The American people have lost a dedicated public servant and an enduring hero.”

One thought on “Senator Lautenberg’s public health legacy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.