There should’ve been an overhaul in how we regulate toxic chemicals years ago. Like when the 2010 President’s Cancer Panel report concluded that babies are now born “pre-polluted.” Or when it came to light that a common flame retardant used in household items actually causes cancer.
Finally, our infamously ineffective Congress has passed a landmark toxic chemical reform.
Or did it only happen on paper?
The original 1976 law on toxic chemicals — which covered everything except food, drugs, and pesticides — was written with the help of the chemical industry. It was designed to be weak.
And it was.
In fact, the law often served to prevent the government from testing new chemicals for safety. It only gave authorities a 90-day window to run toxicity tests before companies could take the new substances to market.
The end result? In the four decades the law was in effect, the EPA only succeeded in regulating five harmful chemicals before they got to the public. Once a chemical made it to market, it was generally too late.
Under the new law, the government now has a backlog of 90 high-priority chemicals to investigate, including obvious culprits like arsenic and asbestos that should’ve been dealt with years ago.
That’s as good a place as any to start. But the Environmental Working Group estimates that it could take 35 years to perform those assessments and implement new regulations.
Could that be exactly what the industry groups who helped draft the new legislation want?
What on earth would make chemical companies ask for new regulations, you might wonder? After all, if they’re worried about the toxicity of their own product, they don’t need a law to do the right thing. They can just take it off the market. So what’s in it for them?
Consumer confidence, that’s what.
If the public hears new regulations have been passed, they’re more likely to trust that the government is doing its job to regulate new chemicals on the market. That means less public pressure for “retailer bans, consumer boycotts, and state regulations,” Bloomberg reports.
Furthermore, the new law actually prevents states from passing new regulations that are stricter than federal rules. The only silver lining, thankfully, is that existing state-level rules get to stay in place.
Is this new law an example of the value of compromise? An inspiring tale about the power of consumer pressure? Or is it a depressing confirmation that nothing gets done in Washington unless the fox is invited into the henhouse?
I can’t help but agree with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. The chemical watchdog group applauded the legislation while telling states, consumers, and retailers to stay vigilant, and stay involved.
We’ll know whether we just achieved a huge victory — or got hoodwinked — when we see if the government can finally protect us from asbestos, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals that we shouldn’t even have to talk about in 2016.
Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding — and all of the other everyday products that contain the chemicals under review.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.