Congress Approves Update of Toxic Substances Control Act

Just when you thought the government was hopelessly deadlocked on pretty much everything, Congress has approved a major overhaul of the nation’s primary chemical safety law for the first time in 40 years!

H.R.2576 – Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act amends the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Originally enacted in 1976, the TSCA governs how industrial chemicals are tested and regulated (including everything found in household items, industrial use and conservation labs).

H.R.2576 revises “the process and requirements for evaluating and determining whether regulatory control of a chemical is warranted” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It includes enforceable deadlines and schedules for both currently manufactured as well as new chemicals before they are allowed to enter the market. The law also contains provisions on animal testing and “cancer clusters,” describes funding and safety information that must be provided by manufacturers, and emphasizes investigation of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs).

Most importantly, the EPA can now take action on reviewing chemicals solely based on environmental and safety concerns. Chemical safety reviews will be more science-based (instead of current cost-benefit balances) and take into consideration populations that are disproportionately at risk, such as vulnerable groups (e.g., pregnant women, children, seniors) or those groups that have greater exposure to the chemical (i.e., chemical workers).

What does this mean for you? The new legislation gives the EPA the authority to investigate and regulate chemicals by removing many of the bureaucratic  hurdles that previously made the process burdensome and restrictive, and had resulted in only a small number of chemicals having meaningful health and safety information. For example, have you ever come across phrases such as “not listed as a carcinogen” and “generally recognized as safe?” These statements do not necessarily indicate that a chemical is not toxic, but may mean that it has never been tested or has insufficient research.

The EPA must come up with a list of high-priority chemicals to undergo review on a specific schedule. If their current Work Plan for Chemical Assessments is any indication, we should hopefully see more significant health and safety information on commonly used conservation chemicals.

For more details, good summaries can be found in Science MagazineAmerican Chemical Society and the International Business Times.

 UPDATE:  On Wednesday, June 22, 2016, President Obama signed the bill to overhaul the TSCA stating, “I’m absolutely confident that we can regulate toxic chemicals in a way that’s both good for our families and ultimately good for business and our economy. Here in America, folks should have the confidence to know that the laundry detergent we buy isn’t going to make us sick, the mattresses our babies sleep on aren’t going to harm them.”

Environmental Defense Fund lead senior scientist Richard Denison said, “President Obama’s signature today launches a new law that will help to improve public health for years to come. While not perfect, the Lautenberg Act fixes the biggest problems with a badly broken law that has left our health at risk. Now the hard part must begin: tending to decades of neglect when it comes to unreviewed and unregulated chemicals.”