In the Washington Post, David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin contrast the first Earth Day in 1970 — which led to environmental victories for clean air and water — with today’s less promising iteration:

The problems [today] are more slippery: pollutants like greenhouse-gas emissions, which don’t stink or sting the eyes. And current activists, by their own admission, rarely muster the kind of collar-grabbing immediacy that the first Earth Day gave to environmental causes.

With Lisa Jackson now in charge at EPA, we’ve seen some steps toward curbing global climate change. In December, EPA issued an endangerment finding, stating that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare (which means EPA can regulate them). In April, with the Department of Transportation, the agency increased fuel-efficiency requirements and set greenhouse-gas emission standards for cars and light trucks.

While these actions are important, we need a much stronger response to stabilize the climate – and such a response doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. The Copenhagen climate talks were a crushing disappointment, and the better-than-nothing House climate bill is unlikely to survive the endless watering-down process that seems necessary to get anything through the Senate these days.

At least the Senate does seem motivated to do something about the woefully inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act. Last week, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, and US Representatives Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman released a discussion draft of a similar bill. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition supports the legislation, but also calls for it to be strengthened in several ways. Here’s their summary of the pros and cons:

While there are differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act includes a number of essential reforms that would substantially improve public health protections:

  • Requiring chemical companies to develop and make publicly available basic health and safety information for all chemicals.
  • Requiring chemicals to meet a safety standard that protects vulnerable sub-populations, including pregnant women and children.
  • A new program to identify communities that are “hot spots” for toxic chemicals and to take action to reduce exposures.
  • Expediting safety determinations and actions to restrict some of the most notorious chemicals, like formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and flame retardants.

While supporting the legislation, the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition called for improvements in three critical areas. As currently drafted, the legislation would:

  • Allow hundreds of new chemicals to enter the market and be used in products for many years without first requiring them to be shown to be safe.
  • Not provide clear authority for EPA to immediately restrict production and use of the most dangerous chemicals, even persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) chemicals, which already have been extensively studied and are restricted by governments around the world.
  • Would not require EPA to adopt the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations to incorporate the best and latest science when determining the safety of chemicals, although the Senate bill does call on EPA to consider those recommendations.

As Fahrenthold and Eilperin note in their article, it’s much harder to rally support to regulate a substance when its effects on humans and our environment aren’t visible to the casual observer – and this applies to many chemicals as well as to greenhouse gases. But reading what they write about US environmental achievements over the past 40 years reminds me that we have a lot of passionate, committed people in this country who can overcome enormous obstacles to achieve a healthier world.