Legislative Issue: The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011
Sarah Piestrup, Graceland University
In 1976 the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed giving the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to require “reporting, record-keeping and testing” of chemical substances and/or mixtures (EPA, 2011). According to the S. 847, the current bill attempting to update this 35 year old legislation only 200 of the 80,000 new chemicals produced and used in the United States have been tested to date and 5 chemicals have been regulated under this law (United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works [EPW], 2012). The history of TSCA includes incinerator approvals to rapidly remove PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in 1981, rules to test for asbestos in schools in 1982, asbestos hazard emergency response act in 1986 and the indoor radon abatement act of 1988 (EPA, 2011). Then the list stops. The ANA gives an overview of how chemicals are affecting the US population with cancer, reproductive disorders, developmental disorders and asthma linked to a long lists of chemicals. These diseases affect 133 million people in the US, almost half the US population, with 70% of deaths and 75% of US healthcare costs included (ANA, 2011).
The list of potential harm, shown injury and proven metabolic disruption is almost endless. This does not mean we should turn our heads and ignore the chemicals that are literally killing us, because the total load of what we are asking our bodies to deal with with can still be reduced. In 2002 a husband was arrested for trying to kill his wife because the warnings issued by the EPA and wood manufacturers failed to protect her from high levels of arsenic she absorbed while building a cabin with him (Liptak, 2002). The levels were so high authorities were convinced the poisoning was intentional until the husband was tested. To spite having no symptoms, he had higher levels of arsenic in his blood than his wife. How many people are walking around filled with xenobiotic substances that are affecting their health without any awareness of that effect? What will we find when we start looking more closely at the interrelation of these compounds on our varied genetic make ups and our total body burdens?
Atrazine, a pesticide banned in the European Union and clearly linked to endocrine disruption and untold potential harm to humans and animals was found in 80% of the public drinking water samples taken in 2007-2008 and has been directly linked to reproductive harm and mammary tumors in animals (Natural Resources Defense Council, 2009). The EPA reports that this damage is not expected in humans based on minimal research mostly conducted for Syngenta, the European manufacturer who also happens to own Astra Zeneca, a company that makes billions of dollars treating breast tumors with drugs like tamoxifen (EPA, 2011). Persistent organic pollutants are literally everywhere, making it all the way to an Inuit woman’s breast milk (Rountree, 2010). Known neurotoxic, immunotoxic and genotoxic metals like lead and mercury are still prevalent and are continually accidentally ingested and purposefully placed into humans by medical professionals (Rountree, 2010). The National Adipose Tissue Survey, which was stopped in 1986 due to budget cuts, uncovered a long list of xenobiotic compounds found in the adipose tissue of Americans in 1982 including styrene, dioxin and other toxic xenobiotics found in 100% of the samples taken (Rountree, 2010). Now, non-profit agencies like The Environmental Working Group (EWG) are picking up the slack with small sample size studies showing that our total body burden includes 171 chemicals and 53 carcinogens in the average sample taken in one study, and 232 toxic chemicals found in the cord blood of minority infants in another (EWG, 2011). To say that this 1976 legislation needs to be updated may be the largest health related policy understatement of all time.
In April of 2011 Frank Lautenberg, a democratic Senator from New Jersey who recently underwent chemotherapy treatment for cancer, sponsored S. 847, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (govtrack.us, 2012; EPW, 2012). The bill then entered the first stage of the legislative process and was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works which includes Senator Barbara Boxer, a democrat from California, Senator James Inhofe, a republican from Oklahoma, Senator Lamar Alexander, a republican from Tennessee and senator John Barrasso, a republican from Wyoming (Govtrack.us, 2012). The last action reported by Govtrack.us (2012) was for November 17, 2011 when a hearing was held with the Committee on Environmental and Public Works and the Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health. This subcommittee consists of Democrats; Frank R. Lautenberg (Chairman), Max Baucus, Thomas R. Carper, Jeff Merkley and Kirsten Gillibrand; and Republicans Mike Crapo (Ranking Member), Lamar Alexander, Mike Johanns, and John Boozman (EPW, 2012).
I viewed this hearing in an archived webcast. Senator Lautenberg presented the bill stating that the statistics from the centers for disease control identified 212 industrial chemicals including 6 carcinogens “coursing through American’s bodies.” He mentioned Lisa Jackson, an EPA representative, who recently testified to the senate that the EPA lacks the tools it needs to regulate high-risk chemicals. Senator Lautenberg showed that the 35-year-old TSCA is considered a high-risk area of law that is harmful to the health of citizens as well as the businesses involved in the chemical industry. Many experts were heard including the director of the Department of Ecology in the State of Washington, Ted Strudevant, who stated that they have no means to understand how to save or protect the highly polluted estuary of the Puget Sound on the coast of my beautiful state. Charlotte Brody, a Registered Nurse, and director of Chemicals, Public Health and Green Chemistry for the Blue Green Alliance made the point that if she practiced nursing like she did when she first started, around the same time TSCA was passed, she would be in prison for gross negligence and malpractice because of what we have learned about human disease, including chemicals, since that time. She used clear striking examples like Agent Orange, which was originally thought to only cause a simple skin rash. The American Chemical Council representative spoke quickly and cautiously stating that they did not approve of this bill but supported the modernization of TSCA. Lawyers supported corporations by presenting the fact that the S. 847 would not properly protect secrete formulas like coke, post it notes and others. The meeting ended in debate and accusations that the chemical industry has blocked every form of legislation and the chemical industry response that they wanted change but had not yet seen a compromise.
I started by sending an automated email to my Senators through a form on the American Nurses Association site where I was able to add in my personal message (ANA, 2011). I did not hear back after a few days, so looked into the details of where the bill was, making sure I was contacting the correct level of government and looking into the latest actions so I could make an educated statement. I called both offices and spoke to a representative who was easily reached on a Tuesday morning in both cases. I received similar standard responses that neither Senator Patty Murray nor Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State had a position on the issue. This shocked me. It’s not like this has not been a prevalent and important issue for the last 35 years and even if the bill has not yet been formally introduced to them I expected at least a statement on the issue in general but to spite asking further questions of the representatives in hopes to get some sort of opinion I was unable to get even a clue as to how my Senators feel about the toxic chemical issue, or any information about where the bill stood to date. I had looked up the status via govtrack.us but I would have liked to get a more current and official update from my Senators, which did not happen so I made a recorded statement urging them to support this bill. I eventually received form emails that addressed the category of issue, thanked me for my input, and stated that my opinion would be considered without anything more specific. I shared the form the ANA created online in multiple professional and personal groups such as “Acupuncturists on Facebook” and “Acupuncture” that I am a part of on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. I received minimal feedback so it is hard to tell if this made much of an impact.
After searching for weeks for a current relevant issue, tracking down that issue through my legislators and the internet, and doing my best to make an impact, I can see that a more precise course of action is in order. After watching the actual Senate sub-committee meeting, I can see that there are specific people that can be lobbied and contacted that have a stake and a say in what will happen next in the process of reforming TSCA. Because taking part on an individual level can be like a drop of water in an ocean, it seems linking with organizations like the Environmental Working Group, the American Nurses Association and so on could be quite helpful. Updates on the current status of the bill as well as the issue are things that need to be constantly monitored and researched and summarized by educated professionals like nurses, and I could send a simple letter with references to help those in charge, or seek a position to take part from the inside of these organizations. Given that the bill is still in committee it seems that addressing the committee members directly would be a more well received and currently effective process. It would be beneficial for organizations like the ANA to have this type of information on their site, and a simple referenced email or letter could encourage this. I could make a blog or web page myself that includes a govtrack.us widget that offers real time updates and links to sites like http://epw.senate.gov/ where people can watch the bill being discussed via a webcast to gain further understanding like I have. This could be presented on social media in a way that is more easily accessible and actionable so people can contact their senator, and those constituents of the senators currently and directly involved could be targeted to put pressure most directly where it is needed most.
I don’t think there is any lack of awareness in the chemical industry, but the defiance to health is beyond what should be tolerated so campaigns could start against those blocking bills such as this to build consumer pressure against the companies directly causing harm to the citizens which would also help save lives as people would be simultaneously learning and avoiding what chemicals cause them harm. This is another place where organizations like the Environmental Working Group, National Resources Defense Fund, American Nurses Association or any other environmental or health related group or organization could be powerful collaborators.
I felt like I was ready for political action before this assignment. Now I feel like my perception of the system has been dimmed by seeing how slowly action is being taken on such a critical issue that no one argues should have been updated already. Similar bills were introduced 2 years prior to this one with similar discussions. One bill was produced by the Chemistry Council that did not meet outside standards for safety. Towards the end of the subcommittee meeting, arguments between Senators and the chemical industry ensued about how reform of TSCA is not moving forward fast enough (EPW, 2012). I saw personally the professionals in charge of the issue not being able to come to common ground or even communicate clearly with each other about why they are not moving forward as Senators questioned Chemical executives about their true intentions. I have taken action on bills that were further along in the legislative process on a regular basis but I had not had an experience where I tracked down the details to this level on a bill that had not yet reached a stage of action.
While I was shocked by the lack of information I got from my representatives, I was inspired by people and organizations doing their best to promote such important change. If a nurse like Charlotte Brody can make clear powerful statements to a Senate Committee through an organization that represents multiple environmental agencies, and a non-profit group like the Environmental Working Group can produce studies that are cited in legislation like S. 847 and make it to massive populations of the affected citizens than we can all make a difference. I am not encouraged by learning that to spite huge amounts of evidence and massive efforts by the legislature, citizens and groups, that the chemical industry’s lack of flexibility to comply with what outsiders think needs to be done to protect the citizens of the United States has succeeded in preventing any legislation for 35 years. It was clear from the subcommittee meeting that this is the problem. I am not at all convinced that my phone calls or any amount of pressure on my senators will make a difference, but I don’t think we should stop trying to get them to have a position on such an important issue that is presented year after year in their arena.
American Nurses Association. (2011). The safe chemicals act of 2011. Retrieved from https://secure3.convio.net/ana/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=343&ct=1
United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. (2012). Subcommittees: Superfund, Toxins and Environmental Health. Retrieved from http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Subcommittees.Subcommittee&Subcommittee_id=01dbc44f-664e-493f-a883-13b89b0f5cc3
Govtrack.us. (2012). S.847: Safe chemicals act of 2011. Retrieved from http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s112-847
Liptak, A. (2002, June 26). The poison is arsenic, and the suspect is wood. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/26/us/the-poison-is-arsenic-and-the-suspect-wood.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
Natural Resources Defense Council. (2009). Atrazine: Poisoning the well. Retrieved from http://www.nrdc.org/health/atrazine/
Rountree, B. (2010, October). Toxins and biotransformation part I genetic and environmental determinants: Toxins, toxicity and biotransformation. In David S. Jones (Chair), Applying functional medicine in clinical practice. Symposium conducted at the meeting of The Institute for Functional Medicine, Portland, OR.
The Environmental Working Group. (2011). The environment: Body burden. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/featured/15
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2011). Summary of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/tsca.html
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2011). Atrazine Updates. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/reregistration/atrazine/atrazine_update.htm#cancer