June 9, 2016 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

A major health and environmental law is headed to the President’s desk for his signature. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act passed the US Senate this week by a bipartisan voice vote, and earlier passed the House by an overwhelming 403-12 margin. Science magazine’s Puneet Kollipara wrote the new law:

“…is perhaps the most far-reaching and influential environmental statute passed by Congress since the body updated the Clean Air Act in 1990.”

The coalition Safer Chemicals, Health Families prepared this recap of it of the new law.

But I’ve observed an unusual thing on the public health and environmental listserves to which I belong. There’s been no flurry of messages applauding it or congratulating colleagues on the victory. The absence of reaction to a major new environmental health law is striking.

For decades, many environmental, labor, health and consumer groups have sought reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. It’s a broken law which was not even capable of ensuring a ban on asbestos. But these same groups seem to be holding their noses and shrugging their shoulders about the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act. The coalition Safer Chemicals, Health Families prepared this recap of it.

The bill was passed unanimously because of intense lobbying by and on behalf of two groups: the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Their marriage gave lawmakers from both sides of the aisle the validation to support ACC and EDF’s legislative offspring (the bill). As ultra-conservative Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) said:

“Anytime you have the Chamber of Commerce and you have the manufacturers [ACC] and the Environmental Defense Fund all together, that gets people’s attention.”

From the beginning, the alliance alone made me wary. But I grew more apprehensive about early (and late) versions of the bill when I assessed the diversity of health and environmental groups who had not jumped on board: The Breast Cancer Fund, Blue/Green Alliance, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Consumers Union, and many others.

Amendments were made to the bill that made it more palatable, but not enough to have groups high-fiving and dancing in the street. On passage of the bill, I’ve read lukewarm statements such as the following:

“Tonight’s vote marks the end of a very long and difficult process. The final bill gives EPA important new powers to require chemical testing and to take action to restrict priority chemicals. The pace will be slow, however, and the bill has other limitations. It is important for the public to remain engaged as EPA implements the new reforms.” (Andy Igrejas, director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition)

And,

“It will be some years before we know for sure how successful the bill will be at protecting the public. NRDC will press hard to ensure the strong implementation of this bill.”  (Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council)

And from Linda Reinstein of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO):

“While this is a landmark step forward, the fight is far from over… Under this legislation, the EPA may take as long as seven years to assess, regulate, and ban asbestos in America. To the chemical industry, this unnecessary delay is about maximizing dollars and cents, but as the ADAO community knows all too well, the true cost of delay will be measured in lives.  …Asbestos has been the poster child for TSCA reform and will be the litmus test for the efficacy of this bill.”

It’s obvious, however, that other groups are intentionally silent on the bill. Some may need time to read it before offering an opinion. All the intricacies of the 178-page law may only be understood by a handful of congressional staff and lobbyists. Groups who are silent may need time to dissect and digest what’s in the bill. Others may see pluses and minuses in the bill, but don’t see much accomplished by articulating those views. The law’s already been passed. Still others may be choosing to hold their tongues until EPA begins implementation of the new law. Critical decisions will be made early in the next Presidential Administration which will signal how much EPA intends to embrace its new authority.  Some of the silence comes from groups who are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

President Obama will host a signing ceremony soon. EPA officials will be developing an action plan and assigning tasks to implement the law.  I’ve no doubt that those who are holding their noses today, will quickly turn the page. I expect they will work diligently to push the EPA to meet deadlines, set high bars for health protection, and reject paralysis by analysis. And if the agency doesn’t rise to met this new opportunity to address exposure to toxic substances, I’m sure lawsuits to compel EPA action will follow.

 

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