By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
Few people realize that while pharmaceuticals have to go through rigorous testing before being introduced to the public, that’s not true of the chemicals in your household cleaners, furniture and baby toys.
They’re not even tested to make sure they don’t cause cancer or birth defects before they’re released into your home. That’s why it’s essential that we pass a stronger federal law to protect the public.
Everyone agrees the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 has been a failure and desperately needs an update. Currently, the burden of proof is so high that the government has only succeeded in banning a handful of industrial chemicals on the market.
The late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) was a real champion of this issue, but the “compromise” bill now being peddled in his absence by Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) is still too deeply flawed to honor his legacy.
In some respects, the latest version does strengthen federal law. It makes it easier for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require companies to conduct testing on their chemicals. It requires the EPA to decide whether a chemical needs to be regulated by looking solely at its impact on health and the environment — not cost considerations. And the agency will now have to examine the effect on particularly vulnerable populations like kids or pregnant women. All good.
But for states like New Jersey, which are already proactive about safety standards, this bill would actually be harmful, because it takes away our existing authority to protect ourselves from dangerous chemicals.
Under this draft, if the EPA has said a chemical merits further analysis because it could be dangerous, but hasn’t actually done that research yet, a state can’t take its own regulatory precautions. It might take years before any restrictions are imposed by the EPA, and in the meantime, the public is protected by no one.
That’s unacceptable, and one of several ways this bill in its current form is worse than existing law.
Another problem is that it allows EPA to say chemicals are relatively safe without doing any full analysis, and there’s almost no way to challenge that decision. If industry is able to sue over EPA decisions to declare a chemical unsafe, why shouldn’t public health groups be able to do the same if a chemical is declared safe without a full review?
Suspiciously, the bill also makes it harder to regulate imports containing chemicals that EPA has decided are dangerous. Considering how many of our toys and products come from China, that’s clearly not in the public’s best interest.
Sen. Cory Booker, who sits on the Environment and Public Works committee, is part of an effort to improve this bill, and neither he nor Sen. Bob Menendez should sign on to it until its major problems are fixed. Yes, imperfect legislation that has a chance of passing is better than a perfect bill that won’t.
But this proposal is worse than imperfect — it could actually put people at greater risk.