Updated: Jan 4
June 24, 2016
WASHINGTON — Four years ago, retired San Francisco firefighter Tony Stefani, stricken with a rare form of pelvic cancer tied to flame retardants, sat before a Senate committee as a living example of how the federal government allowed tens of thousands of potentially toxic chemicals to be used in household products that Americans assumed were safe.
Last week, in a White House auditorium dotted with cancer survivors and widows and chemical industry lobbyists, President Obama signed into law the first update of the Toxic Substances Control Act, first signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976. The rare bipartisan achievement marks the first strengthening of a major federal environmental statute in two decades.
Under the new version of the act, the government will slowly begin to require federal testing of industrial chemicals and could lead to a ban on asbestos, a known lethal carcinogen still in public commerce.
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22: US President Barack Obama is flanked by members of Congress as he signs the HR 2576 bill during an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, June 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. The bill amends the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), to revise the process and requirements for evaluating and determining whether regulatory control of a chemical is warranted. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
At Obama’s shoulder during Wednesday’s signing was Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who called Stefani to testify before the Environment and Public Works Committee she chaired in 2012. For years, Boxer stubbornly blocked proposed reforms of the toxic substances law to protect California’s stricter chemical standards, at one point battling her personal friend, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, after whom the reform is named.
“This bill started out a disaster,” Boxer said as she stood in the celebratory chaos after the signing ceremony. “It was a a very tough slog. Years in the making.”
The bipartisanship on the issue grew out of industry frustration with the proliferation of state chemical regulations that filled the vacuum resulting from the weak federal law, which was further hamstrung by court rulings that limited the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out the law.
Democrats were eager to toughen federal law, but Boxer sought to preserve state authority because California had moved aggressively on its own, both legislatively and at the ballot box. Three decades ago, voters approved Proposition 65, a law that requires the state to update and publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.
But Boxer also wanted to get new legislation passed before she leaves the Senate this year. Her seniority as the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, her knowledge of the bill’s details and political history, and her deep relationships with Republicans on the panel, particularly its chairman and her friend, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., gave her leverage that no successor could hope to have.
“I knew how bad it could be if we lost momentum,” Boxer said. If the bill had not passed under her watch, “then when I was gone they’d start all over, and who would really be there to be the pain in the neck fighting? I was worried.”
Boxer said she is confident in the new bill now, having held out until the end on its most controversial part — allowing states an 18-month window to regulate chemicals on their own before the EPA acts. The law also allows California to keep Prop. 65. If the EPA fails to regulate a hazardous chemical within 3½ years, states can move on their own to regulate the chemical. The bill also assigns a priority for the EPA to review toxic chemicals that are known to persist in the environment and accumulate in the food chain, including in the human body.
Finding common ground
After the signing ceremony, Boxer jostled with well-wishers, including 26-year-old Trevor Schaefer of Boise, Idaho, who survived a diagnosis of brain cancer at age 13. Near him stood Sen. Mike Crapo, the Idaho Republican Boxer worked with to make “Trevor’s Law” part of the legislation, requiring the government to identify and track “cancer clusters” such as the one found in Schaefer’s logging community.
“We have very different political positions,” Crapo said, referring to Boxer. “But we can find areas where we can work together and make it happen.”
Linda Reinstein of Manhattan Beach (Los Angeles County), who co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization in 2004 after her husband, Alan, died of mesothelioma, broke down in tears as she described a six-year fight against the chemical industry to pass the new law.
“I have never seen a harder battle,” Reinstein said. “The American Chemistry Council was hugely funded, so they were able to lobby the Hill with propaganda.
“Asbestos hasn’t been banned. and we still import it,” she said, but under the new law, it is expected to be among the first 10 substances the EPA reviews.
For firefighter Stefani, the new law is but “a start in the right direction.”
Even if the EPA, whose budget is under constant assault from conservative lawmakers, receives full funding, it will take decades for the agency to examine the tens of thousands of chemicals in current use that have not been regulated.
Most people have no idea how lax the current regulatory regimen is and simply assume chemicals used in household products are safe, Stefani said. In the meantime, when buildings and their contents burn, firefighters breath in the gases released from everything inside them.
Decades of exposure
“We are still faced with these toxic exposures, and that’s going to continue for decades and decades,” Stefani said in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he now lives cancer-free and heads the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.
“There are so many toxins out there, it’s hard to visualize that we’re going to be at a place someday where everything that we pick up and put in our hands, and the air that we breath, is considered safe.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead