At the urging of firefighters and families, Minnesota recently banned cancer-causing chemicals found in many home furnishings and children’s products. As firefighter Mark Dickinson noted in an interview earlier this year, the stomach cancer that took his father’s life resulted in part from his on-the-job exposure to chemicals while fighting fires.
Fewer products will contain these dangerous and unnecessary chemicals in Minnesota because of legislative action. Whether it was banning cancer-causing formaldehyde from children’s shampoo or hormone-disrupting BPA from baby bottles, Minnesota has been a national leader in protecting children’s health from toxic chemicals.
Burden of proof
Minnesota acted because the federal government was unable to assess the safety of most chemicals. Under current law, chemicals are assumed safe until proven guilty. For decades, tens of thousands of chemicals have been put into consumer products with little to no safety testing. The burden has been on government to prove that a chemical is unsafe, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done only five times in close to 40 years.
In the absence of federal action, states like Minnesota stepped up; 37 states have passed more than 250 chemical safety laws or regulations. In just eight years nine laws were passed in Minnesota that protect children and families from toxic chemicals in their toys, furniture and other products. Despite this work, stronger federal protections are still needed.
Congress is now poised to take historic action and pass a long overdue update to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). While not the reform needed, this revision to TSCA is expected to become law soon. H.R. 2576 recently passed the House by a wide margin. The Senate bill, authored by Senators Vitter, R-Louisiana, and Udall, D-New Mexico, is expected for a vote this fall. While both bills under consideration make modest improvements to TSCA, they are also flawed.
More than 80,000 chemicals need to be assessed for safety by the EPA. Yet the number and pace of chemicals assessed by both bills (10 chemicals per year under the stronger bill) means public health will remain at risk for a long time. Given this extremely slow schedule for assessing the safety of chemicals, it is essential that states continue to play a role in protecting public health and the environment.
Ties states’ hands
The Senate bill restricts a state’s ability to act on public-health threats in a timely manner. Minnesota and other states would be prohibited from taking action on a chemical when EPA is merely reviewing a chemical. This ties the hands of state governments for years while the EPA deliberates action.
The House bill is much stronger. It preempts state action only when EPA has actually acted on a chemical. This would allow Minnesota and other states to retain a key public-health tool needed to protect the next generation of children.
We aren’t alone in this opinion. The National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Environmental Council of States agree the House bill, with some improvements, should be the framework for updating TSCA.
What Congress decides will impact the health of many generations. We stand with Minnesota families in urging Congress to act to preserve states’ ability to protect us all from toxic chemicals.
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