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.