Lautenberg Leaves Lasting Legacy, Hope For Toxic Chemical Reform

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) did not live to see his efforts to safeguard children from toxic chemicals fully realized. But in response to his passing on Monday, at the age of 89, environmental health advocates are praising his progress and his lasting legacy.

"He was a genuine public health hero, and the leading champion for protecting the public from toxic chemicals," Andy Igrejas, executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families said in a statement.

Less than two weeks ago, Lautenberg co-sponsored the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013. The bipartisan reform bill was just the latest among his attempts to reverse the burden of proof on toxic chemicals -- from the current assumption that a chemical is safe until proven toxic, generally after it's already spent years on the market, to a requirement for industry to prove a chemical's safety prior to placing it on store shelves.

The Safe Chemicals Act, which he first introduced in 2005 to replace the outdated Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, never made it far -- a likely result of intense industry lobbying.

Although met with criticism among some environmentalists who see it as too compromising and weak, hope is generally high that the newly proposed bipartisan bill will at least get the ball finally rolling on the Hill.

Of note, Lautenberg also succeeded in some earlier attempts to create a healthier environment for American families -- from classrooms to airplanes. Perhaps most notably, he started the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory program, which forces companies to disclose the chemicals they emit.

"The landmark law he authored to shine a light on harmful toxic chemicals in our communities and homes, and his tireless fight to keep our air and water clean have doubtlessly saved lives, keeping our families safer and our communities healthier," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. "I never met with Frank Lautenberg when he did not talk about his grandkids and how the work he was doing was meant to ensure they had the future they deserved."

"When you see a superfund site being cleaned, a clean beach or important open spaces like the Wallkill Wildlife Refuge," added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, "you see Frank Lautenberg's legacy."