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The Case for Government Oversight and Regulation

Editor's note, by Carolyn Raffensperger  

Is it worth it? I know many activists were asking themselves this question after Congress passed legislation that tweaked our main toxic chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It was an upgrade, not a full reform. Some of us, like SEHN’s Dr. Ted Schettler, had been working in support of TSCA reform for 20 years. Maybe the law is too little too late. So how would we know if it is worth it?


One way we can evaluate laws is to look back and see if anything has actually improved. Did a law and its supporting regulations actually change anything?


A recent report looked at the hole in the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. When we began using the very stable chemicals like some refrigerants that created that hole in the ozone layer, we didn’t even know there was a protective layer above us. When the hole and the cause of the damage were uncovered, we moved quickly to pass legislation that banned or greatly restricted ozone-damaging chemicals. Guess what. It worked. A new report on the hole near the South Pole has shown that it is slowly healing over. This is good news. The law was a success.


This issue of the Networker focuses on another set of laws and examines the health outcomes of their regulations. Schettler asks if the decline in dementia could be related to laws that regulated air pollution and lead, and he lays out the evidence.


Too often we hear that government is too big or not big enough. At SEHN we contend that size isn’t the relevant question. We believe that government’s responsibility is to serve as the trustee of the commonwealth and the common health for present and future generations. Government needs to be tailored to the public health problems and the threats to clean air, water, wildlife and all the other commons. If environmental regulations fail to protect public health and the environment then they should be discarded. On the other hand, sometimes we get it right: the Clean Air Act amendments and Lead Paint rule have been demonstrably very successful in doing what they were designed to do. So, reduced dementia is an added value to the intended goals of clean air and protecting children’s brains from lead. The far-sighted people who worked for years authorizing and then reauthorizing those laws deserve thanks.


We’ll see about TSCA reform and measure it to see if it too brought about healthier people, communities and ecosystems. Stay tuned….and hug an environmentalist who did the hard work of crafting the legislation that brought about cleaner air, less lead in our environment and healthier elders.