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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Women’s Health and the Environment Conference, As Prepared

04/21/2010
As prepared for delivery.

This week I had the honor of being named one of the most powerful green moms by the website WorkingMother.com. They said, “Where environmental policy is concerned, Lisa Jackson is the Most Powerful Mom in America." It was certainly a nice thing to hear – and an honor to be included on the list. But my ability to live up to that title depends on the work of people like you. So, I want to thank everyone here for your dedication to these issues.

Women’s environmental health is an issue that has profound importance to me – both professionally and personally. I’m here, of course, to speak to you as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. But I’m also here as a woman – and a mother. In many ways women’s health issues and children’s health issues are one in the same. Because a child is more sensitive to toxic exposures, the things we come into contact with, the water we drink…even the air we breathe can impact our children. At those times, taking care of our own environmental health is taking care of our child’s health.

Finally, I’m happy to see you’ve made science a focus today. Since day one, this administration has made clear that every decision we make will be guided by the best science. EPA has an extraordinary staff of researchers and scientists who give us the hard data we need to shape policy and build the strongest environmental initiatives. On my first day I told everyone at EPA that “science must be the backbone for EPA programs.” I’m happy to reaffirm that pledge everywhere I go – and assure all of you that science is the first factor in our work at EPA.

That’s because we know – as today’s theme says – that new science leads us to new solutions. So – as a woman, an environmentalist, and a scientist, there really is no better place that I could be right now.

Women’s health – and health issues in general – have been a strong focus for us in these first 16 months. It seems like the perception in a lot of places is that the EPA is the anti-climate change agency. We are taking action on climate, to be sure. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of people at EPA working and studying critical environmental health challenges. These are what I like to call the “meat and potatoes” issues that have a direct effect on people’s lives. And they are the things EPA has been working on for the last 40 years.

We’ve taken a number of steps to protect the air we breathe, invested billions to ensure clean drinking water and supported cleanup and restoration efforts in the places where we work, live, play and learn. Through these efforts, we’ve made some strides in making the air cleaner so fewer children, like my son Brian, will suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Today I want to spend some time on an issue that is a top priority for our time at EPA, and an issue that has serious impacts on our health. That is understanding the risks posed by chemicals, and doing our utmost to make sure they are safe.

Everything from our cars, to the cell phones we all have in our pockets are constructed with plastics and chemical additives. Chemicals are now ubiquitous in our economy and products – as well as our environment and our bodies. A child born in America today will grow up exposed to more chemicals than a child from any other generation in our history. In 2005 one study found 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies – chemicals from pesticides, fast food packaging, coal and gasoline emissions, and trash incineration. They were found in children in their most vulnerable stage. Our kids are getting steady infusions of industrial chemicals before we even give them solid food.

Now, some chemicals may be risk-free at the levels we are seeing. But as more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably concerned. They want assurance that chemicals have been assessed using the best available science, and that unacceptable risks haven’t been ignored. Right now, we are failing to get this job done. Our oversight of the 21st century chemical industry is based on the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. It was an important step forward at the time – part of a number of environmental wins from the 1970s.

But over the years, not only has TSCA fallen behind the industry it’s supposed to regulate – it’s been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects.

Manufacturers of existing chemicals aren’t required to develop the data on toxicity and exposure needed to assess potential risks and demonstrate to EPA that chemicals meet risk-based safety standards.

EPA has tools to require the industry to conduct testing, but they are inefficient and ineffective. There are troubling gaps in the available data on many widely used chemicals in commerce.

On new chemicals, companies have no legal obligation to develop new information – only to supply data that may already exist. As with existing chemicals, the burden of proof falls on EPA.

Manufacturers aren’t required to show that sufficient data exists to fully assess a chemical’s risks. If EPA has adequate data on known risks, the law creates obstacles to quick and effective action.

Since 1976, EPA has issued regulations to control only five existing chemicals determined to present an unreasonable risk. Five from a total universe of almost 80,000 existing chemicals.

In 1989, after years of study, EPA issued rules phasing out most uses of asbestos, an exhaustively studied substance that has taken an enormous toll on our health. The court overturned EPA’s rules because it had failed to clear the many hurdles for action under TSCA.

Today’s new science – advances in toxicology and analytical chemistry – is revealing new pathways of exposure. There are subtle and troubling effects of chemicals on hormone systems, human reproduction, intellectual development and cognition.

Every few weeks, we read about new potential threats: Bisphenol A, or BPA – a chemical that can affect brain development and has been linked to obesity and cancer – is in baby bottles…phthalate esters – which have been said to affect reproductive development – are in our medical devices…we see lead in toys; dioxins in fish; and the list goes on. EPA needs the tools to do the job the public expects.

Last year I outlined six core principles to guide efforts to fix the weaknesses in TSCA. Let me highlight some of those:

First, we need to review all chemicals against safety standards that are based solely on considerations of risk. And we must set these standards at levels that are protective of human health and the environment.

Second, safety standards cannot be applied without adequate information, and responsibility for providing that information should rest on industry. If industry doesn’t provide the information, EPA should have the tools to quickly and efficiently require testing, without delays and procedural obstacles.

Third, both EPA and industry must include special consideration for exposures and effects on groups with higher vulnerabilities – particularly children.

Fourth, when chemicals fall short of the safety standard, EPA must have clear authority to take action. In all cases, EPA and chemical producers must act on priority chemicals in a timely manner, with firm deadlines to maintain accountability.

Along with assuring protection of health and the environment, this will provide business with the certainly that it needs for planning and investment.

Fifth, we must encourage innovation in green chemistry, and support research, education, recognition, and other strategies that will lead us down the road to safer and more sustainable chemicals and processes.

Finally, we need to make sure that EPA’s safety assessments are properly resourced, with industry contributing its fair share of the costs of implementing new requirements.

The call for change in our chemical management laws is rising from all quarters. A broad coalition of environmental advocates, unions, medical professionals and public health groups – including grass-roots organizations from across the country – have come together to make the case for stronger chemicals regulation.

Many in Congress have already recognized that TSCA must be updated and strengthened. Senator Lautenberg from New Jersey last week put forward legislation to strengthen and modernize TSCA, and we will work with him and his colleagues to ensure any changes meet the needs I just outlined.
Several states have stepped in to address these threats because they see inaction at the national level.

Industry too, has called for action. Chemical producers are worried not only about facing an inconsistent patchwork of state laws, but believe that they can thrive only if the public is confident that their products meet rigorous safety standards.

They want the US to lead the world in chemical risk management, not fall further behind.

It’s not often that the chemical industry, states and the environmental community agree that the current system is not workable, and have similar visions of how the new system should be shaped.

There are certainly differences of opinion and important details to be worked out. But the common ground that exists makes me optimistic that Congress can put a new law in place that has broad support from all the stakeholders.

EPA will do its part to make a new law a reality. Assuring chemical safety in a rapidly-changing world, and restoring public confidence that EPA is protecting the American people is a top priority for me, my leadership team, and this Administration.

As I said at the outset, our success depends on you. We need your engagement as well.

That is true for every issue from ensuring the safety of chemicals to climate change and more. We have some of the greatest opportunities we have ever seen to protect our health and our environment.

I hope it’s clear to you that I – and all of my colleagues at EPA – fully intend to seize those opportunities. And I hope you will join us in that work. Thank you for inviting me today.