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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Congress’ Chemical Concerns

Air Date: Week of

Baby bottles containing BPA have been pulled from some store shelves; Congress wants to know how they got there. (Photo: joker4u2nv09)

Powerful Congressional committees want to know what’s gone wrong with toxic chemical regulation and the science that’s needed to safeguard public health. Living on Earth's Jeff Young tells us the wave of investigations are tied to public outrage over potentially toxic baby bottles.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood. From supermarket shelves to the halls of Congress, some chemicals used in everyday products are coming under intense scrutiny. Stores are pulling items, including baby bottles, that contain a potentially hazardous chemical known as BPA, or bisphenol A. And Congress has launched multiple investigations into the scientific process and regulatory agencies that are supposed to ensure the safety of the stuff we buy.

In a moment we’ll hear from a former federal official who says the system is corrupt and broken. But first, to Capitol Hill, with Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young.

YOUNG: Powerful congressional committees want to know what’s gone wrong with toxic chemical regulation and the science that’s needed to safeguard public health. The Senate’s environment committee heard a stinging report from the Government Accountability Office about changes the Bush administration made to an important chemical assessment program. The GAO's John Stephenson told the committee that political appointees now weigh in on a process that should be left to scientists.

STEPHENSON: They’re getting involved in the science portion in the early assessment of chemicals. They should not be muddling in the front part, in the science.

YOUNG: Stephenson says that jeopardizes science that’s vital to developing regulation, targets for cleanups or other public health protections. The GAO found bureaucratic hurdles swamped the Environmental Protection Agency’s work, delaying assessments of some likely carcinogens by years. Stephenson says the Defense Department delayed for a decade an assessment of the engine-degreasing agent TCE, which contaminates drinking water near some military bases. And his report shows that the Defense Department and other agencies can affect EPA’s chemical assessments without the public even knowing about it. California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer chairs the environment committee.

Congresswoman Barbara Boxer. (Courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

BOXER: So Instead of having the scientists at EPA decide what’s good for our health, we now have contractors, essentially, at the table. And what makes it worse is the entire process is kept secret.

YOUNG: EPA’s James Gulliford, who leads the agency’s toxic substances office, defended the process.

GULLIFORD: Ultimately it’s still, at the end of the day, it’s EPA’s decision. So I believe it’s a very – it is a transparent process. It’s a process that ultimately results in a science-based result.

YOUNG: The powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce is also investigating the chemical industry’s influence. Democrat John Dingell of Michigan wants the industry’s main lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council, to provide details on nine scientists with ties to the industry who served on EPA’s expert review panels. Chemistry Council vice president Sharon Kneiss says the industry will cooperate with the investigation

KNEISS: We continue to provide government agencies with data regardless of the findings because we are proud stewards of our products.

YOUNG: So why all these investigations now? Well it’s largely due to revelations about the chemical bisphenol A. BPA, as it’s known, is in some plastic containers, including baby bottles, and it shows up in blood samples from infants. Animal studies show BPA affects reproductive health and development of the brain. New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez co-sponsored a bill to ban BPA, something he says regulators should have done already.

MENENDEZ: The whole purpose of our regulatory bodies is to ensure that the public’s health, safety and security is preserved, and you don’t do that as a clean up brigade; you do that as a preventer of bad things from happening, and so yeah, it does bother me a great deal.

(Baby bottles containing BPA have been pulled from some store shelves. Photo: joker4u2nv09)

YOUNG: The chemical industry and Food and Drug Administration say products containing BPA are safe. But as parents toss out suspect sippy-cups and retailers remove bottles from shelves, it’s clear many people do not agree. Richard Wiles at the Environmental Working Group says that’s focused the public on chemical consequences and forced Congress to act.

WILES: Babies will be exposed to toxic chemicals because industry has corrupted the science, and public health protections aren’t forthcoming. What began as an investigation of a contaminant in baby bottles has expanded into a government – a congressional -wide probe into corrupt science.

YOUNG: Out of the mouths of babes, as the good book says. For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



The Senate environment committee’s hearing on chemical assessments includes a link to the GAO report

The House energy and commerce committee’s investigation of chemical industry

The Environmental Working Group’s report on BPA in children’s products

The American Chemistry Council’s response to concerns about BPA


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