Interview with Dr. Deb Swackhamer – Shaping Chemical Policy in Minnesota

I had the opportunity in early November to sit down with Dr. Deborah Swackhamer, Co-Director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center and a professor of environmental chemistry in the School of Public Health.   We’re lucky to have her at the Humphrey School as well currently through an appointment with the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy.

In this social media class, I’ve been scanning who out there is talking about chemical policy reform.  It’s a lot of concerned mothers and very involved advocacy groups. How do we get more every day citizens talking about the issue?

It’s a delicate balance because one of the only ways to get people’s attention is to make it relevant to their life.  Moms have kind of done that because of the whole “Oh my god, there’s BPA in baby bottles and teethers.”  So moms got it right away because of their kids.  You can over-alarm people, so it’s a difficult line to walk – to educate people about this issue but not have them walk away totally depressed or freaked out.  Like we do with any communications, we have to be careful how we communicate this.  It has to be at the right level of “This is what we know. This is what we don’t know. This is why we care about this.”

I don’t know why this issue is so hidden.  I have been surprised at how few people would actually say this is an important issue but when you explain it to them, they’re amazed.  I think the vast majority of people really do think, “Well we have the Clean Water Act. We have the Safe Drinking Water Act.  We have the Safe Air Act.  We have all sorts of things. So these chemicals must be at safe levels in the environment.”  I think part of it is that people simply think the government is protecting them.  And I’m not bad-mouthing the government.  We just don’t have the right tools to deal with this avalanche of chemicals.

The other thing is that I talk to people and people will say, “Chemicals – oh, I hated chemistry in high school. I don’t like chemistry.” They turn off at the word “chemistry.” Similarly, I don’t know economics, so when they start to talk about the forecast or hedge funds, I turn off.  So, I think for a lot of society, this is something they’re just not interested in talking about. They can’t pronounce them. They don’t understand them. They hated chemistry in high school. End of story.  So I think there’s a social barrier to getting the point across.

Much of my project, I’ve been following the attempt at the federal level to overhaul TSCA.  I’m aware that there’s not a lot of optimism of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 getting voted on prior to Congress adjourning for the year.  What makes you optimistic around this issue?

The big complaint from U.S. companies is that they don’t like having two sets of rules.  If they want to sell on the European market, they have to conform to their stricter chemical law [REACH].  They’d much rather have U.S. regulation look like REACH.  Eventually I think that push will be too strong for Congress to ignore.

In the meantime, many states have taken initiative.  California’s got the green chemistry initiative.  Minnesota passed the Toxic Kids Act.  Many states are banning chemicals, but they’re doing it one-by-one.  That’s not helping much because you have this patchwork of regulations a very desperate industry is trying to figure out how to navigate.  Industry would really like to see one set of rules, but no one has yet agreed on what that set of rules would look like.

I’m aware that you’ve been involved with a cross-sector stakeholder process around chemical policy here in Minnesota over the past couple years.  Can you tell me more about that?

Minnesota has certainly been a leader in this arena.  We decided we would embark on a formal, public process thinking there’s got to be a better way.  The Environmental Initiative helped us with a stakeholder process.  There were two phases, the first phase was to scope the problem, have everyone agree to what the problem was.  The second phase was to address that problem.  We’re still working on this but the plan is to have a report for 2012 to hopefully influence legislation introduced in the 2012 legislative session.

Want to learn more about Dr. Swackhamer’s work and chemical policy action here in Minnesota? I encourage you to read the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework and visit the Environmental Initiative’s Minnesota Chemical Regulation & Policy Project.  

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Healthy families, Clean Lakes – Support the Safe Chemical Act

Just today the National Resources Defense Council released the results of a poll in New Hampshire that indicates high levels of bi-partisan support for stronger federal chemical regulation.  Specifically, 77 percent of those polled support stricter regulation of chemicals produced and used in the US.  As Daniel Rosenberg from NRDC points out: with many of us seeing our friends and families suffer from cancer, learning or developmental disabilities, infertility issues, asthma, or birth defects, it’s no wonder that this is an issue that garners support across the political spectrum.

What would a poll on this issue among Minnesotans look like?  Without perhaps many citizens even realizing it, Minnesota is at the forefront of attempts to protect the health of citizens and the environment from unregulated chemicals.  The Environmental Initiative has helped convene a stakeholder process over the past couple years called the Minnesota Chemical Regulation & Policy Project  to recommend improvements to Minnesota’s approach to chemical regulation, management and policy.  The final report from this effort will be presented at the January 2012 legislative session.

Minnesota is just one of many states that are trying to press forward to be a leader for other states and the federal government to follow.  The catch in this work is to not get in the way of the comprehensive reform that needs to happen at the federal level.  Regulating one chemical at a time at the state level is not an effective approach to make a dent on the 85,000 unregulated chemicals in the market.  It just creates a regulatory landscape that is even harder for industry to manage.  International companies are already frustrated by having to manage the differences between the EU’s stricter REACH policy – which takes a precautionary approach – and lax US policy.  Industry supports  clear, comprehensive reform to patchwork policy.

There is much individuals can do right now to support efforts at both the state and federal level.  As I shared in my last post, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S.847) has currently been left in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.  Due to political gridlock in Congress, getting action on any issue right now is a challenge, much less an issue that is as far off public’s radar as chemical policy.  However, even in a time of gridlock, there is hope to move forward if enough people speak up.  Online petitions from the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families give you the chance to do just that.  The Environmental Defense Fund takes it a step further providing a social media toolkit you can use  among your friends and family as well as great resources to make you a smarter consumer around chemicals.

The Safe Chemicals Act is worth supporting.  It includes a solid range of reforms to TSCA that would not only ensure chemical manufacturers are proving safety prior to moving chemicals to market but provide the EPA the authority to limit and ban chemicals.

Locally, you can voice your thanks to Senators Klobuchar and Franken for supporting the Safe Chemicals Act.  Furthermore, you can follow and share the activity of the Minnesota Chemical Regulation & Policy Project and be poised to call your State legislator to encourage the implementation of the recommendations that emerge from this group in January 2012.

If you feel you need to educate yourself further on the issue before taking action, I encourage you to take a look at the great list of resources the Environmental Initiative has compiled.

I encourage you to take action.  This problem is manifesting itself not only in the health of our citizens but in the Minnesota waters we cherish.  Voice your pride in Minnesota for taking a collaborative lead on this issue and ask the federal government to step it up on this highly important issue.

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A glance into chemical reform’s window of opportunity

“Of the nearly 85,000 chemicals on the current Toxic Substance Control Act inventory in the United States, fewer than two percent have received any substantive, data-informed review.”  –Safer Chemicals Blog, 9/14/11

Startling, right?

I became mildly interested in chemical policy many years ago upon reading Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, but it was reading Our Stolen Future in a course at the Humphrey School last semester that really sparked my interest.

I couldn’t believe that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 was so weak and ineffective.  There is a window right now to strengthen U.S. chemical policy.  On April 14, 2011, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S.847)This Act would fix the major flaws of TSCA.

As it lingers in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, there has been an explosion of mobilization around its passage.  Online petitions have been launched here, here, and here.

On an issue that typically flies under the broader public’s radar due to its technical nature, environmental and public health advocacy groups are working hard to educate through reports like this and infographics such as this:

Both the Environmental Defense Fund’s I am Not a Guinea Pig campaign and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Take out Toxics campaign have launched videos that also help make the issue hit home:

Take out Toxics from Natural Resources Defense Council.

Chemicals in your home from Environmental Defense Fund.

Meanwhile, the chemical industry has latched onto public frustration with a depressed economy to claim that improving TSCA will eliminate jobs and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has continued to limp along as best it can under TSCA as it stands now.  On August 18th, it proposed to apply science-based criteria to expand its list of 10 chemicals or classes of chemicals of concern that require action to protect public health and the environment.

In lieu of strong federal regulation, states also continue to pass their own regulation.  However, the American Chemical Council continues to spend billions to fight regulation at a state and federal level, even as they see a consumer push for safer chemical manufacturing increasing into the foreseeable future and remove chemicals from some products like baby bottles and sippy cups.  I question what value could be created by the ACC shifting the $9.4 million it spent on lobbying against BPA regulation in California to green chemistry R&D!

Yes, there is another way and Minnesota is positioned to be a frontrunner.  The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment recently published this feature on green chemistry.  With an ounce of prevention, we can reduce situations of groundwater contamination like this in our state.

Here’s a couple of additional resources on the issue of chemical policy I hope to get to in the next month that I thought I’d share with you:

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ToxicyTracker: A hub for tracking chemical policy

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a public affairs generalist – more expert in the management and processes by which work gets done and community is built than in any one specific policy area.  However, when pushed to define a single area of interest, I’ve found myself intrigued by the intersection of human, economic, and environmental health.

The issue of chemical policy falls right at that intersection.  As a part of a Social Media class for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, I am positioning myself as an info agent on this area.  Though I know this topic may seem highly technical to those not working in this field, it’s a particularly timely issue right now with the introduction of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 in Congress back in April.

I have been out putting my ear to the ground in Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the blogosphere to see who else is interested, talking, and listening around this issue.  Based on that listening exercise, I bring you…my summary of chemistry policy resources.  Over the course of the next couple months, I will be following and interacting all these sources, individuals, and organizations – trying to help others realize not only the importance of this issue but make sense of it.  You can connect with my efforts on Facebook, Twitter, and – of course – right here on this blog.

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