Forward on Safer Chemicals, One Way or the Other

Wednesday's successful Senate vote on the Safe Chemicals Act was an important milestone by any measure. It was the first vote on a comprehensive overhaul of our chemical safety system in 36 years. It means the bill can now move to the full Senate. There are scheduling and political challenges to that, to be sure, but there is no reason those can't be surmounted.

There is urgency to moving forward because of the growing body of science linking toxic chemicals to many of the chronic diseases and learning disabilities that increasingly burden American families. For that reason, the support for reform is both broad and deep with Americans across the political spectrum: right, left, and center. And if you don't believe polls, you just have to look to the "pray-in" with conservatives in Little Rock, or read my new favorite blog, Our agenda truly unites people from all walks of life, all across the country.

Precisely because of that, there was an incredible, almost desperate, attempt to enforce a line within the bubble of the Beltway yesterday that the vote was actually "a step backwards" because the bill didn't garner Republican votes, and no major industry group broke ranks to fully support it. The bill is supposedly therefore "dead" - despite actually passing committee! - and the "real work" will have to wait until next year.

It's true that due to the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, a proposal requires 60 votes, rather than a majority of 51, to pass. And that means that if Republicans were to continue to oppose reform in lock step, the Safe Chemicals Act would not pass. But let me suggest that such obstruction of a popular reform- were it to occur- would be a problem for the obstructors, rather than the reformers. It would align the Senators decisively with an industry that has shown a reckless disregard for how its chemicals are used and whether they are safe - including toxic chemicals that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has measured in every pregnant woman they've tested and which many American children are already contaminated with at birth.

But such an outcome would also be a loss for the industry itself, because it would only serve to further define them as a particularly pernicious special interest that uses its influence to obstruct progress in Washington. And that in turn, would leave the rest of us with no choice but to redouble our efforts in the states, in the marketplace and with the public.

In my 20 years of advocacy work, it's never been lost on me that I'm privileged to do my work in this country, compared to China or Russia, where my counterparts are sometimes imprisoned or killed. The first environmental policy truly is political freedom. But that also means that if Congress gets too beholden to the chemical industry, we have a lot of other ways to make change in this country.

I would particularly ask folks in the consumer products industry to focus on this last point. Many of them have been more proactive in trying to figure out a path forward on national reform, but when push came to shove, as it did Wednesday- they largely fell in line behind the chemical industry's largest trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC). In doing so they're taking their eye off the ball: their customers. A wise man in one these trade groups said recently: "it's all well and good for ACC to obstruct reform, but our members may have $100 million in brand equity that can go 'poof' overnight because of a chemical problem that's beyond their control."

So true. But if these companies and their trade associations continue to fall in line behind the ACC, and the ACC continues to stonewall reform, and Republicans continue to listen to ACC, then reform will be delayed. In the meantime, people may start asking some simple questions: Which companies make the chemicals that are showing up in pregnant women? Which products contain those chemicals? Can Walmart, for example, agree not to sell those products?

Ask not for whom the brand equity goes poof. It goes poof for thee.

So let's hope that the many bright spots in Wednesday's vote prevail. The Democrats were united in support. Senators Lautenberg, Carper, and Boxer all expressed an openness to further changes to the legislation to win broader support, even as they correctly maintained the urgency of moving forward. Senator Vitter, the Louisiana Republican known as an industry champion, expressed a willingness to keep working on a version of the bill he could support, as did Senator Crapo. We take them at their word. I think the ball is in now in their court to put ideas on the table that would win their support.

We are moving forward on safer chemicals, one way or the other.

Path2Parenthood is a proud member of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition.

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