The Safe Chemicals Act, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), champions the protection of consumers from the hazards of household products. While many public interest groups have hailed this legislation as an unambiguous win for consumers and a punishment for Big Chemical, the Safe Chemicals Act would actually benefit businesses in the long run by inspiring greater public confidence and by rewarding sustainability innovators.
The Safe Chemicals Act would deliver improvements all along the value chain, from large-scale chemical manufacturers to the consumer goods companies that process and package chemicals into the cleaners and personal care products sold in the supermarket aisle.
Sen. Lautenberg has introduced versions of the Safe Chemicals Act into the Senate for the past seven years with the goal of replacing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is a 35-year-old regulation that requires EPA to demonstrate "unreasonable risk" to public health from existing chemical ingredients -- and has effectively grandfathered in at least 62,000 untested chemicals in the marketplace. As more and more scientific studies link chemicals in household products to birth defects, cancers and other illnesses, consumers are becoming alarmed. A recent poll found that a staggering 68 percent of the public supports an overhaul of TSCA.
The Safe Chemicals Act mandates that all chemicals present "reasonable certainty of no harm" and requires manufacturers to submit testing data to the EPA so that chemicals can be prioritized according to potential risk. Under the Safe Chemicals Act, EPA has the authority to restrict or remove chemicals of high concern. Although Lautenberg did grant major concessions to get the Safe Chemicals Act passed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July 2012 – one of which was reducing the testing requirement for new chemicals to minor screenings -- the legislation is still a dramatic change that shifts the burden of proof from EPA to industry.
So if the Safe Chemicals Act passes, would it stifle innovation and hinder sales, as opposing trade groups have implied? My guess would be no. Having worked for a federal agency in an environmental role and having interned at a Fortune 50 chemical company, I have seen firsthand how the government has tried to assist businesses while lacking critical information, which appeared to render them hamstrung.
Public relations is a challenge for chemical manufacturers, even for those that go above and beyond regulations. This is partly due to chemical release disasters that occurred decades ago, yet still stand out in the minds of the public. The Safe Chemicals Act would ease these unfortunate patterns and create a platform for both the government and business to take on more responsible, proactive roles.
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