Building Momentum in Chemical Policy Reform

Steve Heilig, MPH
Director of Public Health and Education at San Francisco Medical Society and CHE

Though CHE partners represent diverse perspectives and sectors, one interest likely to be shared by most is an improved chemicals policy—one that is truly health protective. At the root of many of the environmental health maladies and concerns summarized in CHE’s original consensus statement is the outdated and slapdash manner in which industrial chemicals have been developed and marketed. Given the increasing incidence of chronic diseases and disabilities in which environmental factors play a role, it has become clear that the so-called free market has failed us in this regard.

On CHE’s June partner call, discussion focused on a new consensus document from the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and the Toward Tomorrow Initiative, “A Common Agenda for Health and the Environment: Goals for the Next Generation and Steps to Get There“, including a dozen worthy goals outlined in the report.  One of those goals is “developing a new integrated chemicals policy for the United States to phase out the manufacture and use of disease-causing chemicals such as carcinogens and reproductive toxicants, and to ensure the safety of all chemicals remaining in commerce through rapid decision-making and incentives for the substitution of hazardous substances by safer alternatives and green chemistry.”

Debates over how that reform should be structured echo the current heated discussions about healthcare reform. In fact, it is not clear yet whether fundamental chemical policy reform will take precedence over other regulatory and legislative priorities. However, change is in the air—in large part due to the concerted efforts of many CHE partners to ensure that emerging environmental health science is accessible to lay audiences, policymakers and other concerned sectors. A striking Washington Post story this week entitled, “Chemical Industry Lends Support to Reform”, begins: “In a reversal, chemical industry leaders said last week they are joining environmentalists, public health groups and consumer advocates in seeking more robust federal regulation of chemicals.” The full story is worth reading.

What might this “reversal” mean in practice? We’ve already seen some analogous pledges fall by the wayside over the years as well as in the current healthcare reform debate, but there is at least some ground for hope here. Stricter European chemical regulations are forcing market-based changes upon American and multinational chemical interests. And in the US, many states, such as Maine, Washington and Minnesota, are taking bold legislative action as well. Also this past week, in a piece that appeared in the journal Science, “A New Wave of Chemical Regulations Just Ahead?” described these efforts and reported that “Lisa Jackson, the Obama Administration’s newly appointed EPA director, has listed reform of chemical regulation as one of her top five priorities.”

This is a vastly complex arena. But again, there are some encouraging signs. We know that many CHE partners, using the best available science, are hard at work to ensure that chemical policy reform becomes a reality and safer alternatives are available in the marketplace. Stay tuned, as we plan to bring you more news of these ongoing efforts.