Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A legacy of health: Goodbye to Senator Lautenberg

Lautenberg speaks to supporters of the Safe Chemicals Act in 2012
by Fawn Pattison, Executive Director

Public health advocates around the US were deeply saddened yesterday to learn of the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. At 89, Lautenberg was the oldest serving member of the Senate and its last WWII veteran. He was also a champion of public health, and in recent years had dedicated himself to winning a much-needed overhaul of the nation's failed toxic chemicals law.

I don't frequently admit to being a New Jersey native. I graduated from UNC and have long since naturalized as a Tar Heel. But Senator Lautenberg always reminded me of the best of my birth state: his rapid Northeastern accent, the unstoppable charisma that (until quite recently) belied his nearly ninety years, and especially his toughness. New Jersey is famous for its rough-and-tumble politics, and Senator Lautenberg was among the virtuosos. The really inspiring thing about his sharp-elbows style is what he used it for: Lautenberg's legacy is public health.

During his 28 years in the US Senate, Lautenberg worked for policies that are credited with saving tens of thousands of lives, from not smoking on airplanes, to a uniform national drinking age. In 2008, Lautenberg introduced the first of several bills to overhaul the notorious Toxic Substances Control Act. Just two weeks ago, his office announced a bi-partisan compromise, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, that has received mixed reviews but has won the support of both Republicans and Democrats - a remarkable feat in today's Congress. 

In February of this year upon announcing his intention not to run again, Lautenberg signalled that chemical reform was to be among the issues that make up his legacy:  
“I am not announcing the end of anything. I am announcing the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey,” he said.
We're on the same mission to protect children from toxic chemicals. We'll honor that legacy by sharpening our elbows and working harder than ever at it. Thanks, Senator Lautenberg.

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