On Thursday, the Senate passed a flawed bill to update the federal chemical safety law, the 1976 Toxics Substance Control Act (TSCA), unanimously approved on a voice vote. The language of the legislation is an updated version of the Senate bill, S.697 (the “Udall/Vitter bill”). The House passed its own version this summer. The next phase of the process is a conference committee between House and Senate to reconcile the differences between the two bills.
Congress has its work cut out for it as lawmakers negotiate the final bill language. The current TSCA law is notoriously ineffective, and we need real reform to protect public health from toxic chemicals. While improved from their original versions, neither the House nor Senate bill is strong enough, and both bills contain some dangerous flaws.
Andy Igrejas, Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a 450-member coalition dedicated to TSCA reform, had the following statement on passage of the Senate bill: “Though improved, the legislation still has major problems. For example, it weakens EPA’s ability to intercept imported products, like most of the toys under your Christmas tree, when they contain a known toxic chemical. If reform is going to be credible, tricky, sneaky provisions like this will have to be removed. Luckily, it is not too late. When Congress reconciles the House and Senate versions, they should focus on the fundamentals of reform and simply empower and direct EPA to identify and restrict toxic chemicals.”
And Daniel Rosenberg, senior Attorney in the Health and Environment Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council said, “Although the Senate bill has improved over time, it still has significant flaws that must be fixed in conference. As the bill moves forward, Congress should ensure that the final legislation marries the best aspects of the Senate and House bills and drops the worst.”
In the conference process, Congress should change or eliminate the following problems in the Senate bill:
- States will be blocked from protecting their citizens from dangerous chemicals, even before the federal government has taken action, potentially delaying urgent public health interventions.
- The bill makes it more difficult for EPA to identify and intercept imported products containing a toxic chemical.
- The “low priority” category requires EPA to greenlight some chemicals without a thorough safety review.
- There are numerous requirements placed on EPA at industry’s behest that divert scarce resources from the core purpose of identifying and restricting chemicals that cause harm.
The primary law currently responsible for ensuring chemicals are safe — the original Toxic Substances Control Act — was passed in 1976 and is long overdue for an update. The law is so weak that the EPA has only been able to require testing on less than 2 percent of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market at some point since TSCA was adopted. Of those that have been studied, approximately 1,400 chemicals with known or probable links to cancer, asthma, developmental disorders, reproductive impacts and other health problems are still in use today.
Our weak and outdated chemical law has led to widespread exposure to hazardous chemicals in our homes, schools and plaes of work and through the products we use every day. The more we learn about the cost of toxic chemicals to our health, the more critical it becomes to strengthen regulation.
In the absence of federal protection, states have stepped up as best they can. Many states, like California, Maryland, Washington, and Minnesota, have passed important laws that protect their citizens from toxic chemicals. The Senate bill, as passed, would seriously limit states’ ability to restrict dangerous chemicals that threaten the health of our families and communities.
We need national reform. States do not have the necessary resources to test and regulate the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market. It may be a tough needle to thread, but we can provide greater protection for our health and safety, while also providing the regulated industry with a rational and predictable system. And until we have a strong national policy, states must retain the ability to protect their citizens.
As Congress debates the best way forward to reconcile the bills, I hope members will consult our leading experts in medicine and science, as well as families and communities who have dealt with the often devastating health impacts of toxic chemical exposure. Chemical industry lobbyists will continue to push for lax timelines, loopholes for imported products, poor enforcement, limited state regulation, and continued use of chemicals we know to cause enormous harm.
Policymakers who care about the health and safety of American citizens must continue to advocate for true reform.