Hot Reads: CA Takes Back Its Dumb Rule, Chemical Reform Under Contemplation, and More

Wicker Picnic Basket Grass 6-1-09 1

(Photo credit: stevendepolo)

Kick up your feet: this couch won’t bite!

Fantastic news from California! It looks like beginning this winter, furniture makers will be able to jettison toxic flame retardants from their products. Currently, manufacturers use these chemicals to comply with a stupid CA state law, even though the flame retardants are linked to learning deficits, cancer, lowered IQ and other issues and do little to protect against fires.

A proposed rule allows manufacturers to discontinue the use of flame retardant chemicals in January 2014, with all manufacturers required to achieve full compliance by January 2015. This is an issue that has been driving me crazy for some time, and I’ve written about it obsessively a lot. I’m looking forward to the day when we can all breathe a sigh of relief, lie down on our couches, and take a long, peaceful nap.

Be aware that whatever the final implementation date, manufacturers will still need to change their supply chains, which may take a while. In the meantime, here’s my FAQ on flame retardants, here’s some options I found, and here’ s a handy-dandy cheat sheet of purchase options from the folks at Green Science Policy Institute, which also has their own FAQ.

It’s about time: A Quick Take on Last Week’s Chemical Reform hearing

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It was a joke almost from the get-go: while it purported to assure the safety of thousands of chemicals in common household products, in reality the chemical industry got the government to give tens of thousands of them a free pass. Since then, the number of chemicals in our live has gotten larger but government regulation covers only a fraction of a percent of them. A key example: asbestos, which we know causes mesothelioma and a host of other health problems, cannot be banned under the law!

Finally, after 37 years, Congress is considering updating chemical safeguards, thanks in part to the incredible leadership of the late Senator from New Jersey, the Honorable Frank Lautenberg. This should have been done a long time ago, but the gathering momentum and discussion of a proposed new bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), offers some (limited) hope, following a marathon Senate Environment and Public Works hearing last week.

Sadly, as the testimony from panel after panel made clear, the new proposal is not as strong as it should be. Given the persistent gridlock in Congress, I was cheered to hear Senators from both sides of the aisle agreeing on something essential: that there is a pressing need to reform the chemical oversight law. Some lawmakers floated the notion that they are willing to work together, which is a refreshing change, and gives me hope that the bill can actually be fixed.

More cynically, I see it as a clear signal that the chemical industry is ready to deal, and that they have finally decided that some rules to reassure the public of the safety of their products may be better than the Wild West. In the current environment, companies are never sure about whether a product is going to land them in some scary headlines and tick off moms like me. In addition, most multinationals are already complying with stricter laws in Europe, so perhaps uniformity has advantages in terms of costs for them. Ominously, there was a not-so-subtle suggestion from a few GOP lawmakers that the current proposal is the best that will be offered, which would be a crying shame, given that none of the many environmental and public health organizations on the panel supports the current version.

What are the flaws and omissions in the proposal? Sadly, there is still lots of work to be done. Many witnesses raised the important issue of the need to provide protections for state laws that are already on the books and to ensure that whatever federal standards are developed do not over-ride the state provisions. This issue — called preemption by lawyers — is needed because the states have stepped into the breach during the long winter of federal inaction on chemicals and many have their own rules that should remain in force.

In addition, nothing in the proposed law provides specific protections for vulnerable people, such as children, or pregnant and nursing moms. But we know that exposure to chemicals cannot be judged on an average basis, because there are simply windows of time in our lives when exposure to even a relatively small amount of chemicals may have devastating health effects. That’s why advocates have been so concerned about findings of chemicals in umbilical cords and cord-blood of brand-new babies: this is such an intense period of cellular development that the impact of chemicals can be far greater than it would be for an adult. In addition, environmental justice concerns about how chemical facilities and releases are concentrated in low-income areas means this kind of assessment must be done for basic fairness.

Third, because the name of the game in DC these days is paralysis by analysis, I was excited and cheered to see so many folks raise the need for hard deadlines in the law. There is clearly no stomach for another 37 years of delay. Witnesses also spoke to the importance of developing a clear and simple process for any new rule, and some even called for an assessment by the current regulators of how long, exactly, it would take under the law before the first new standard could get out the door.

The bottom line is that the bill has to be improved before it moves forward. Senator Boxer (D.-CA), the chair of the committee, provided wonderful clarity on this point and definitely seems like she on the case. But she needs our support, so here’s how to help:

Let’s be clear: this is more energy towards real chemical reform than we have seen in years, and a moment that is not be wasted. So let’s all do what we can to keep raising the costs of failure and inaction on this critical public health issue, for your kids and mine.

Water, Water Everywhere

Is your water safe to drink? Maybe, but maybe not. If it passes through PVC pipes it might contain vinyl chloride. And lead is unfortunately still a concern. Check out these tips from Healthy Child Healthy World. They list dangers to watch for and measures you can take to ensure that you and your family are staying hydrated and toxin-free.

Hot Fun in the City? Not so much.

Sunscreen, plastic pitchers of lemonade, insect repellant and a red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloth. Sounds like a great picnic, right? Sadly, no. All of these products contain dangerous toxins, so before you fire up the grill for a couple end-of-summer barbecues, do a little research to make sure you aren’t unwittingly exposing yourself to harmful chemicals. To help you avoid toxin-tainted products as the summer wraps up, the folks at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families have put together an informative graphic and released startling new test results on a bevy of summertime fun products.

There are more offenders than you might think, in places you might not suspect. Check it out and chuck the plastic and folding chairs, so that you are chilling in the dwindling days of summer in a toxin-free environment. And while you’re picnicking, please contemplate the nuttiness of a world in which the red-checked tablecloth is poison, and the blue-checked one is fine. Another reason we need that federal reform law!

Don’t Spank Your Toddler. Full stop.

Given my recent post on respectful communication with a child and developing resilience through trust, I was shocked to learn this week that 94 percent of toddlers are spanked and fifty percent are spanked three or more times a week. Really, what lesson does spanking teach? What does it demonstrate to children except that physical violence is appropriate behavior? And what effects does it have on the relationship between a parent and a child?

StopSpanking.org put together this incredible video about their efforts to ban spanking. The video is proposal for a full-length documentary, and funds are being solicited to produce it. Watch the video. It’s eye-opening.

Childhood obesity: down?

Good news for once: recent studies actually show a drop in childhood obesity. Hello! Let’s figure out why please, and do more of that.

The tragic costs of regulatory resistance

I wrote last week about the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a train carrying crude oil exploded and killed 47 people. Now the victims’ families will suffer more. When the costs associated with the crash were estimated at $200 million this week, the company responsible for the disaster—Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway—filed for bankruptcy because it was carrying only $25 million in insurance coverage. Appalling.

Extra! Extra!

The week began with a bombshell: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, made arrangements to purchase The Washington Post. At first glance, the story had all the trappings of a modern-day tragedy. A man who made his fortune on the internet was buying a newspaper that owed its demise to that very same cornerstone of the digital age.

But the more I read about Bezos, the more I wondered about his motives and what they might suggest for the future of the paper. The Post, like much of print journalism, has seen better days. Its revenue has fallen 44 percent over the past six years and in 2012 its operating loss topped $50 million.

So why did Bezos, a calculating businessman, fork over a quarter of a billion dollars for it? Was it a vanity purchase to raise his intellectual cachet? Was it a hobby buy to feed a love of letters? An act of philanthropy? An ego move to show he could succeed where others failed? Or an attempt to purchase a mouthpiece on federal policy and influence federal lawmakers in support of his left-libertarian views? Only time will tell.

And that’s a wrap for this week. Hope you are having a lovely August!

Stroller Brigade for the Safe Chemicals Act

Today before work, I stopped by the Capitol to check out the National Stroller Brigade in support of the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847), a bill to reform chemical safety and protect families introduced last year by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-NJ), with the strong support of Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) and others.

Sen.’s Lautenberg and Durbin were there, of course, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-NY), as well as children, parents and activists from all around the country, including Michigan, Maine, and New York. It was a heartening show of support, kicked off by words of encouragement from Andy Igrejas, of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition that is leading the push for the legislation.

Sen. Lautenberg pointed out that the current chemical reform law is badly broken, given that of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, only 200 have even been investigated. Sen. Durbin recalled his days in the U.S. House of Representatives, decades ago, when he teamed up with Sen. Lautenberg (he’s been in the Senate for a long time!) to pass a new law that took on the tobacco industry to get a federal limit on cigarette smoking on airplanes (remember that??), saying that this singular action to emphasize the health hazards of smoking became a tipping point in the national discourse on cigarettes. If they could do it then up against Big Tobacco, he said, we can do this now on chemicals.

Sen. Schumer quoted his mother, who evidently is a wise woman: “You’re only as happy as your least happy child,” she told him. He went on to speak sympathetically about families grappling with childhood illnesses, like asthma and other conditions, linked back to toxic chemicals, and to describe the effort for the bill as a way to ensure that no more families and children needlessly suffer these health impacts.

A mom from Michigan with three young sons, Polly Schlaff, who lost both her husband at age 33 and other family members to non-genetic forms of cancer, also spoke very movingly, saying that, as a mom, she can’t “un-know” what she knows to be the truth about chemicals and health. And although she now knows better, she said, she can’t do better without government action to make the world safer for families and children.

And last, Hannah Pingree, former Speaker of the House in Maine, wrapped up the program, talking about her own body burden test, which showed that, despite the fact that she lives on a rural island in Maine, there are hundreds of chemicals in her body, many known to be health-threatening.

Virtually everyone talked about the Chicago Tribune series last week, the despicable tactics of the chemical companies and their link to similar malfeasance by the tobacco lobby. The solution to the problem, of course, is a far stronger federal law that requires companies to test chemicals to determine their safety and health impacts before letting them into products and our bodies.

What You Should Know About the Safe Chemicals Act

From a fact sheet on the bill from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:

  • The Safe Chemicals Act improves chemical safety. For the first time, the chemical industry must develop and provide information on the health and environmental safety of their chemicals, in order to enter or remain on the market. If no information is provided, the chemical would be prohibited from use in products and workplaces. Where there is data that shows potential concern, chemicals must be proven safe before entering commerce, just as is already required of pharmaceuticals and pesticides under other laws.
  • Immediate action on the worst chemicals. EPA must immediately reduce exposure to the “worst of the worst” chemicals, specifically PBTs (chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic). Common PBTs include lead, mercury, flame retardants, and other toxic compounds that build up and persist in our bodies, breast milk and the environment.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act protects our health using the best science. Many toxic chemicals especially threaten the health of pregnant women, developing fetuses, babies, young children and teens. Other uniquely vulnerable groups include the elderly, people with preexisting medical conditions, workers, and low-income communities—predominantly people of color—located near chemical hot spots. When determining a chemical’s safety, EPA would be required to ensure protection of vulnerable sub-populations, such as children, pregnant women and hot-spot communities, from all sources of exposure to that chemical.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act informs the market, consumers and the public. As a consumer you have the right to know the safety of chemicals you encounter everyday. The Safe Chemicals Act requires that basic health and safety information on chemicals be made public.

Sounds pretty great to me. Now, we just have to get Congress to pass it.

Are your Members of Congress supporting the Act?

Here are the Senate cosponsors:

Sen Begich, Mark [AK]
Sen Blumenthal, Richard [CT]
Sen Boxer, Barbara [CA]
Sen Durbin, Richard [IL]
Sen Feinstein, Dianne [CA]
Sen Franken, Al [MN]
Sen Gillibrand, Kirsten E. [NY]
Sen Kerry, John F. [MA]
Sen Klobuchar, Amy [MN]
Sen Leahy, Patrick J. [VT]
Sen Menendez, Robert [NJ]
Sen Merkley, Jeff [OR]
Sen Murray, Patty [WA]
Sen Sanders, Bernard [VT]
Sen Schumer, Charles E. [NY]
Sen Tester, Jon [MT]
Sen Whitehouse, Sheldon [RI]

If your lawmakers are already on the bill, great! Thank them for their support, as they are the ones that have to push this forward.

One thing I notice about this list? No Republicans. Yet consumer safety and the health of families should be a bipartisan concern. Here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today, and ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act.

My postscript: Sen. Lautenberg and Sen. Durbin have been working together a long time, and it’s a pleasure to watch such collegiality and warmth. I’ve also worked with them (or really, their staff) for years, and I can honestly say that they are both incredibly smart and caring, as well as right on the issues. Politicians get such a bad rap for being craven, and it’s mostly well deserved. At a time in which finger pointing and polarization is more the norm, the clear mutual regard and affection between these two Senators shows that it doesn’t have to be that way, and is certainly something that people outside Washington should see about the very best among our lawmakers: