Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act: Protecting Americans’ health and the environment in the 21st century

A little over a week ago, consumers across the country were given something they rightfully have demanded for years: more confidence in the safety of the chemicals used to make the products they purchase for themselves and their families.

But consumers didn’t just ask for the greater sense of safety that was given to them by the signing of “The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.” They also wanted to be able to continue to rely on those products to serve their intended purposes – products like sunscreens, bike helmets and laundry detergent. Yes, the chemistry behind the innovations had to be produced and used responsibly, but importantly, the products also had to work in the way consumers expected them. In other words, the chemistry had to be safe, innovative and effective.

A report today in one of the New York Times health blogs challenges this assertion, but does so in a way that betrays a fundamental understanding of how to make social and economic progress in the 21st century. More on that in a minute.

Balancing twin priorities of safety and innovation

American chemical manufacturers have long understood that consumers expect them to strike the right balance between creating innovations that enhance everyday products and drive economic growth, and protecting human and environmental health. While many NGOs and environmental groups for years have taken the position that those two goals are mutually exclusive, chemical manufacturers have always seen them as twin priorities that support one another.

In fact, one of the main reasons the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act became the first major environmental law to be updated in nearly 30 years is that other well-respected and highly-influential groups like the Environmental Defense Fund – once highly critical of industry’s position – understood that an effective way to protect human and environmental health was by balancing it with consumer expectations for innovation and economic and job growth. You couldn’t just deliver on one – you had to succeed in delivering on both. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical safety for the 21st Century Act did just that.

While the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act was a truly historic and bipartisan achievement, the spirit of compromise that helped bring chemical safety into the 21st doesn’t appear to sit well with those who continue to focus solely on advancing one side of the agenda. At the signing ceremony for the new bill, however, President Obama rebuffed any individual or group who may continue use partisan politics to stand in the way of progress:

And I want the American people to know that this is proof that even in the current polarized political climate here in Washington, things can work.  It’s possible.  We can keep families safe and unleash the engine of American innovation.  We can protect the planet and keep creating jobs.  If we can get this bill done, it means that somewhere out there on the horizon, we can make our politics less toxic as well.

Real progress is a two-way street

While compromise continues to be the preferable outcome for all sides, there will be times when one side will need to stand its ground and defend the twin priorities of human and environmental health and innovation from the other side trying to break them apart.

Enter that New York Times health blog I referenced earlier, which highlights a group that is critical of the bill President Obama signed in law to help protect people and planet. The group claims that the law doesn’t do enough to protect people and the environment, a claim which reveals their tunnel vision about how to make social and economic progress in today’s political climate. Not only are important health and environmental protections strengthened under the new law, they also work in a way that does not unnecessarily hinder the other side of progress: innovation and economic growth.

Since it is of critical importance to industry and to consumers alike, here’s what people need to know about the important health and environmental side of America’s new chemical safety regime:

  1. All chemicals are subject to a review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the first time. New chemicals will undergo a risk-based review BEFORE they are allowed on the market. EPA’s risk evaluations must be based ONLY on human health and environmental considerations. EPA must consider risk to vulnerable groups like infants, pregnant women, and the elderly.
  1. EPA must focus on chemicals that are the highest priorities. EPA will establish a transparent, risk-based prioritization process to identify high and low priority chemicals that considers a chemical’s inherent hazards; uses; typical exposures to people, including vulnerable groups, and the environment; proximity to drinking water sources; and other relevant information. A thorough risk evaluation will be conducted on any chemical designated as “high-priority.”
  1. It’s now easier for EPA to require manufacturers conduct additional health and safety testing. This applies to any chemical for which EPA may believe more data is required to determine whether it meets the safety standard. In the past EPA had to demonstrate that a chemical didn’t meet the standard before it could require additional testing.
  1. The new law provides EPA with a full range of options to address risks posed by chemicals. EPA will apply risk management measures to any chemical found to present an unreasonable risk that could include labeling requirements, use restrictions, phase-outs, or bans.
  1. The new law strengthens transparency, credibility, and quality of science used to make EPA decisions. EPA must use the best-available science and base decisions on the weight of the scientific evidence, meaning the Agency must give the greatest weight to information from the highest-quality and most relevant studies.

While implementation of the new law will continue take place over the coming months, there are some important things that consumers will need to keep in mind which haven’t changed.

First, everything around us, including the entire human body and everything we eat and drink, is entirely made up of chemicals. Through extensive scientific research, real-world safe exposure levels are established for ingredients used in products. Such research takes into account important factors like how chemicals are used, whether people are actually exposed to them, at what level they are exposed and for how long.

Second, the mere presence of a substance does not imply that chemical will lead to adverse effects. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes, “The measurement of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine does not by itself mean that the chemical causes disease.” In other words, exposure to trace levels a chemical does not signal impending harm to health and through the study of toxicology we know about dose, potency and safe exposure levels and how the human body processes a substance.

Coupled with a strong understanding and appreciation of the science, we strongly believe the modernized chemical regulatory system will help give consumers greater confidence in the safety of chemicals used in thousands of consumer products, provide companies with greater regulatory and marketplace certainty, and ensure that America remains the world’s leading innovator.

>>Learn more about the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act

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