It's Way Past Time to Overhaul Our Broken Federal Chemical Law

If you're like many Americans, when you're buying a garden hose or glass cleaner or a couch, you assume there are laws on the books to ensure that the chemicals used to make these products are safe for human exposure. The alarming truth is that the 37-year-old law that is supposed to protect us from toxic industrial chemicals--the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)--is so broken that our government hasn't even been able to ban asbestos, a well-established human carcinogen.

TSCA's fatal flaws were easy to predict. When Congress passed TSCA in 1976, the law automatically grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals of the 84,000 chemicals registered for use, meaning chemical companies could keep selling them without testing them for safety. And the law is so weak that of those grandfathered chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency has required testing for only a few hundred, and only five chemicals have ever been banned or restricted.

It's not hard to see the human collateral caused by this law's massive shortcomings. Look at breast cancer: Today 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed in her lifetime. That's a 40 percent increase since TSCA's passage. We know only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers can be traced back to inherited genetic factors, and a volcano of scientific studies point to environmental causes, including chemical exposure. This emerging science is telling us a complex story: that the timing of chemical exposure matters, that low doses can sometimes be more harmful, and that mixtures matter - we are all exposed to not one but many chemicals at a time, every day for a lifetime. Three recent major federal reports have pointed out the failures of TSCA and the need to reform it. A 2009 GAO report found that although TSCA authorizes the EPA to ban, limit or regulate chemicals, the threshold to take action is prohibitively high. And we see states around the country taking action to protect their residents in the absence of federal action.

After decades of Congressional inaction, in late May, Sens. David Vitter (R-LA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)--introduced the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which aims to reform TSCA. Unfortunately, this bill will not do the job. It doesn't respect the right of states to protect their residents if the federal government fails to do so or is slow to act. It doesn't adequately protect scientific integrity from undue industry influence. It doesn't allow the EPA to take fast action on the worst chemicals. It doesn't protect the most vulnerable among us, including pregnant women, children, workers and communities disproportionately exposed to chemical exposures. And it doesn't require that the public has access to information regarding the safety of chemicals or put the onus on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate chemicals are safe before they are allowed to enter the marketplace.

The Senate bill prompted a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives to hold a hearing last week to review the flaws and merits of TSCA. I had the honor of testifying about the links between toxic chemicals and diseases and disorders like breast and prostate cancer, asthma, birth defects, and early puberty. I wanted to make sure members of Congress understand that their lack of action to effectively regulate industrial chemicals is worsening a growing public health crisis.

It is heartening that Congress is finally paying attention. But who will they listen to? To the chemical industry, which has balked at the idea that chemicals should be shown to be safe before coming on the market, or the people in our armed services who deserve assurance that there won't be another Camp Lejeune-style cancer cluster? To those who insist we need more evidence of harm before acting, or to the millions of Americans living and dying in our most polluted communities? To the powerful interests fighting to keep the status quo or to parents who want to know that their six-year-old daughters won't have to face early puberty?

Congress has a moral imperative to pass legislation to strengthen the way chemicals are regulated in this country and to provide the public real protection from chemicals that are causing harm to human health. Congress is listening. Now it's time to act.