With the gutting of environmental regulation in full swing in Washington, industry lobbyists and their political allies have taken their anti-regulation battle to state legislatures, and are already meeting with real success. From Maine to New Jersey to Florida, governors are rolling back environmental regulation in the service of smaller government.
"Maine's working families and small businesses are endangered," Maine's Republican Governor Tim LePage said recently, as he touted a pro-business agenda. "It is time we start defending the interests of those who want to work and invest in Maine with the same vigor that we defend tree frogs and Canadian lynx."
LePage's tone is the standard sarcasm elected officials use to mock anyone standing in the way of industrial expansion. Rather than quibble with his language, I suggest we take LePage at his word. To be sure, the de-regulated world he desires, in which the interests of working people are protected with the same "vigor" as wild places and wild animals, is already here.
In recent years, researchers have discovered both petrochemicals and breast cancer in the bodies of beluga whales. They have found PCBs -- a compound used in electrical transformers that has been banned for 30 years -- in the snow atop Anconagua, the highest mountain in the Andes. They have found flame retardants in the blubber of seals on Canada's Holman Island, which sits at 70'44" North, far above the Arctic Circle. Fifty years ago, of course, it took Rachel Carson (and the near-extinction of bald eagles) for people to wake up to the dangers of DDT.
And among humans? The Centers for Disease Control and health groups in a number of states have begun testing people for the presence of toxic chemicals in their bodies. Without exception, these studies have found that we are all contaminated by the chemicals used to make everything from stain-resistant cookware and flame-retardant mattresses to the compounds found in nail polish and crinkly bottles of drinking water. Little is understood about how all these chemicals, once inside us, interact with each other.
Here's the problem: most of the tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals in common commercial use have only been around for a few decades, far too short a time for researchers to figure out with any certainty what impact they might have on our health. The human immune system has evolved over millennia to combat naturally occurring bacterial and viral agents. It has only had a few decades to adjust to most man-made contaminants, many of which interfere substances produced naturally by our own bodies.
Scientists know how easily synthetic chemicals pass into -- and stay -- in our bodies, and they know that chemicals have been linked to everything from abnormal brain development, hormonal imbalances, and cancers of all kinds.
What is particularly distressing about Governor LePage's stance is that in the years immediately before he came to office, Maine had led the effort to control the toxic chemicals that are so ubiquitous in our bodies. The state banned toxic flame retardants in 2007, and a year later passed one of the country's first comprehensive anti-toxic bills, one that created a database not only for chemicals found to be dangerous in labs, but also those commonly found in people's bodies.
In Maine, state legislators like the visionary Hannah Pingree, the former Speaker of the House, understood that their constituents were not executives in the chemical industry but mothers worried about their children's health. Her interest in the problem of toxic chemicals was hardly idle. She and other Maine residents had volunteered for a "body burden" study, for which they donated samples of their blood, hair, and urine. Pingree, then in her early 30s and recently married, learned she had mercury levels above the standard for protecting a developing fetus from "subtle but permanent brain damage." Other volunteers discovered they spent their days loaded with synthetic flame retardants, Teflon chemicals, and the plastic compounds phthalates and Bisphenol A.
Yet with a new Republican administration in power in Maine and elsewhere, the pressure to roll back these gains continues. Industry lobbyists have turned their attention to the states in part because they already have a firm stranglehold on Congress. The federal law regulating toxins, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, California (TSCA), hasn't been updated in decades. Under current law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required testing on just 200 of the nearly 80,000 existing chemicals, and restricted only five.
Despite this inaction, the market for nontoxic products recently prompted Wal-Mart to announce it will no longer sell products made with toxic flame retardants; Whole Foods has banned Bisphenol A; and Kmart has said it will no longer sell items made with polyvinyl chloride. And some 30 states, including Illinois, Michigan and New York, are currently considering legislation similar to that under pressure in Maine.
Given the mounting evidence of the dangers chemicals pose to our health and the environment, such oversight is long overdue, despite what those trumpeting de-regulation would have you believe.