Editor’s Note: Bonnie Lautenberg is a photographer, writer and social activist who actively advocated for the toxic chemical law that was passed in 2016, after the death of her husband, former Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
As a Senator, my late husband, Frank Lautenberg, made it his mission to fight for the health of Americans – especially kids. He fought to protect them from exposure to toxic chemicals in our air, water, consumer products and cigarette smoke.
Frank’s passion for defending the most vulnerable of Americans came from his father – a Polish immigrant who worked in silk mills. As an adult, Frank’s dad took great pride in his own personal health. Yet he only lived to the age of 43, dying of colon cancer after years of working in the silk mills.
Frank’s final fight during his last year in Congress was to ensure strong public health protection would guide our decisions about chemical safety. To do this, he sought to fix the nation’s badly broken chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
Inspired by Frank’s vision, his colleagues continued working towards a bipartisan solution – culminating in 2016 with the signing of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law. The Lautenberg Act aimed to plug the holes in our chemical safety net, to better protect Americans from toxic chemicals tied to cancer, infertility, learning disabilities and other serious health impacts.
But today that progress is endangered. Michael Dourson, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) chemical safety program, has made his living helping the chemical industry in its efforts to weaken safety standards for their chemicals. If confirmed, he would be in charge of reviewing the safety of chemicals that our kids have exposure to.
The Lautenberg Act requires the EPA to evaluate chemicals using the “best available science,” but Dourson has made a career practicing what has been called “mercenary science.” Over and over again, through his consulting company, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), Dourson downplayed the health threats of his clients’ products.
For example, in a study funded by the American Chemistry Council, Dourson has argued for a safe exposure level of the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE) that is up to 15 times higher than the EPA’s recommended level. He did similar work on PFOA, a chemical that was used to make Teflon, 1,4-dioxane, a frequent drinking water contaminant – and many more.
But it isn’t just unfamiliar chemicals with confusing names – all of us are familiar with tobacco and its dangers. The health impacts of secondhand smoke were already on Frank’s radar as far back as 1987, when he worked to ban smoking on airplanes. Yet Michael Dourson was working with a tobacco industry front group as recently as 2001 – helping it downplay the dangers of its products.
Dourson is certainly not unique in doing this kind of work: There are plenty of scientists who worked for big tobacco, and more recently the chemical industry. But why on earth should someone with that background oversee our federal chemical safety program? How could anyone trust Dourson to put public health before the interests of the clients he has spent decades defending?
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Senators acted to pass the Lautenberg Act because toxic chemicals pose a threat to all of our families. And clearly President Trump cares deeply about his own children and grandchildren. I’m surprised any of them would entrust the safety of their loved ones to Dourson.
Michael Dourson will only serve to undermine Frank’s legacy and threaten the safety of families and children across our country. Now it’s up to members of the Senate to recognize this and keep our health out of his hands.