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Capital Times
Bruce Speight

The day after Consumer Reports released findings showing alarming levels of arsenic in children’s juice brands, the U.S. House took up two bills last week and another scheduled for this week that would make it harder to test, regulate and recall dangerous products from store shelves.

These bills represent some of the most sweeping and radical attacks on basic health and safety protections for young children, as well as the broader public, ever to be considered by Congress. They not only threaten some of the significant federal victories over the last 30 years, but combined they would shut down the regulatory process and potentially leave Americans unprotected by further deregulating the public health, environment and financial sectors. Here’s how.

Last week, the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA/H.R. 3010) was voted on and approved by U.S. House of Representatives. The Regulatory Accountability Act would add layers of new bureaucratic processes before even simple public health rules could be enforced. It would empower special interests to use the courts to delay protections that have been years in the making.

After a 10-year fight, Congress authorized the Consumer Product Safety Commission to develop new safe crib standards. America’s most vulnerable population – infants – finally received protection against collapsing cribs that injured and killed far too many. The Regulatory Accountability Act would have made it easier for special interests to contest the new crib standards in court, delaying further these critical protections.

What’s more, by mandating that agencies must always make costs to industry the most important priority, the RAA would override at least 25 important health, safety and environmental laws that Americans depend on to keep them safe. For example, the RAA would conflict with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which says that OSHA must act to protect workers when “reasonably necessary or appropriate to provide safe and healthful employment.” The RAA would also run roughshod over the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and other popular laws that protect our lives and health every day.

Similarly, the Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act (RFIA/H.R. 527) would have blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to enforce the Clean Air Act and new lead standards for children’s products. The Clean Air Act has reduced emissions of key pollutants by 70 percent and significantly improved the health of Americans. In 2010 alone, the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 premature deaths, 1.7 million instances of asthma exacerbation and 54,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, as well as 41,000 respiratory and 45,000 cardiovascular hospital admissions. Without the protections of the Clean Air Act, we can expect to see increased illness and death due to these illnesses, and a significant increase in health care costs.

Lead interferes with the development of the nervous system and is a powerful neurotoxin causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders, seizures, coma, and even death. Recently the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was amended to lower lead in children’s toys and other products to 100 parts per million from 300 parts per million, essentially making toys and children’s products that much safer. If the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2011 (REINS/H.R. 10), which Congress is taking up this week, became law, just one branch of Congress could block these types of life-saving regulations and favor special interests such as the toy industry.

Last year, 1 million pounds of E. Coli-contaminated meat were pulled from store shelves in California by food safety inspectors. Congress, with bipartisan support, responded to this episode and numerous food recalls by modernizing food safety practices, and reassured Americans of the safety of our food supply. Under the REINS Act, the updated rules would be blocked and the safety of our food supply would again fall victim to the vagaries of food processors who have time and again put profit above public health.

The enactment of any one of these bills would put agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a never-ending treadmill of bureaucratic analysis when responding to new public health threats such as food-borne illnesses due to unsafe industry practices and inspection of imported meats from countries where safety laws are weak or nonexistent.

Rather than streamlining government or “updating the regulatory process,” as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is claiming, these bills will undermine our nation’s most basic safeguards as they favor special interests over the public interest. Consumers must stand up and speak out, and tell the U.S. Senate, if the U.S. House (the people’s house) won’t listen, to safeguard public health and safety, not powerful special interests.

Bruce Speight is executive director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

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