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NRDC: Fixing a Broken Law

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Q&A with Daniel Rosenberg, senior attorney in NRDC’s public health program in Washington, D.C., and director of its toxic chemicals reform project.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act is dead in Congress.

I don’t agree with that view and I don’t really trust it. All our major environmental laws took years to get through Congress. In the past two years, we’ve seen significant reform bills introduced in both the House and Senate. This year we plan to build on that progress, and things are off to a reasonably fast start. NRDC president Frances Beinecke testified about TSCA reform before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in February, and Senator Frank Lautenberg has introduced a revised and improved version of last year’s bill. So there’s no reason this can’t be a live issue. The opponents of reform, who include many in the chemical industry, like to say "it can’t be done" in the hopes of stifling momentum. It’s important not to fall for that kind of spin.

Feature Story: Pure Chemistry

Why do you think this issue is being revisited now after being dormant for so long?

I think two of the main drivers are the adoption of broad chemical reform policies in Europe and around the world and the dramatic rise in reform efforts at the state level -- most of which have had overwhelming bipartisan support. Maybe even more important is the growing body of scientific evidence of all the ways in which chemicals may harm our health, their potential effects at very low doses, the combined effects of exposure to multiple chemicals, and the confirmation that we carry hundreds of chemicals in our bodies, even at birth.

Do you see reform of TSCA as inevitable in the long run?

Yes. It reminds me a bit of the Middle East, where you have all these corrupt, repressive regimes that have been around for 30 or 35 years, about as long as TSCA. Things that seem as if they will be around forever can change very quickly. Doctors and scientists are so concerned about the lack of action by policy makers that they are becoming more outspoken; there’s a marketplace revolt by consumers who don’t want to buy unsafe products; and large retailers like Walmart don’t want to go on carrying them. I don’t know if TSCA reform will ever have its Tahrir Square moment exactly, but if people occupied the National Mall for nine days demanding TSCA reform we would get something passed and sent to the president’s desk pretty quickly!

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The potential for chemical reform is quite exciting, but it should be done in a way that doesn’t sacrifice millions of animals (for toxicity testing) in the name of better protection for human health and the environment. The revised bill should mandate and create market incentives to use nonanimal methods. We need to ensure that chemical testing is in line with the 21st century and relies on modern, human cell and computer-based methods that provide accurate data on how a chemical acts and what the impact on human health may be.