In the the first major update to an environmental statute in 20 years, President Barack Obama on June 22 signed into law H.R. 2576 – the “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act” – which modernizes the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
TSCA was first passed in 1976 to help keep dangerous chemicals off the market and avoid making consumers and employees sick. It particularly focused on chemicals that were known to cause serious health impacts, such as cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm.
At the signing, President Obama remarked: “Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Americans were becoming increasingly concerned with the fact that our natural resources and our communities and our health were threatened by pollution and toxins. And science backed it up. So over the course of that decade, Republicans and Democrats in Congress came together again and again to produce landmark environmental victories. The Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act. The Endangered Species Act. The creation of the EPA. All of them have benefited this country greatly. And, to be fair, all of them happened under the initiative and under the watch of a Republican President: Richard Nixon.”
TSCA, which was signed by President Gerald Ford, was intended to be one of those foundational environmental laws, but years after TSCA was enacted, there remains thousands of chemicals on the market that have never been evaluated for safety because TSCA did not require it. And the original law set analytical requirements that were nearly impossible to meet, and this left EPA’s “hands tied,” according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, “even when the science demanded action on certain chemicals.”
President Obama said that at the time TSCA was signed, there were 62,000 chemicals already on the market. “Out of those original 62,000 chemicals, only five have been banned. Five,” said President Obama. “And only a tiny percentage have even been reviewed for health and safety. The system was so complex, it was so burdensome, that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos – a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year. I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that.”
In a June 22 blog post on the EPA web site, McCarthy wrote: “While the intent of the original TSCA law was spot-on, it fell far short of giving EPA the authority we needed to get the job done.” https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2016/06/tsca-reform-a-bipartisan-milestone-to-protect-our-health-from-dangerous-chemicals/
“It became clear that without major changes to the law, EPA couldn’t take the actions necessary to protect people from toxic chemicals,” she continued. “Diverse stakeholders, including industry, retailers and public health and environmental experts, recognized these deficiencies and began to demand major reforms to the law.”
McCarthy specifically mentioned asbestos, noting, “The dangers of inaction were never more stark than in the case of asbestos, a chemical known to cause cancer through decades of research. During the first Bush Administration, EPA tried to ban asbestos under TSCA, but the rule was overturned in court. In the law’s 40-year history, only a handful of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market when the law passed have ever been reviewed for health impacts, and only 5 have ever been banned.
Because EPA was not empowered to act on dangerous chemicals, American families were left vulnerable to serious health impacts. At the same time, some states tried to fill the gap to protect their citizens’ health—but state-by-state rules are no substitute for a strong national program that protects all Americans. Chemical manufacturers, consumer retailers, and others in industry agreed: reform was sorely needed.”
She added that “as with any major policy reform, this one includes compromises.” However, McCarthy called the bipartisan bill “a win for the American people.”
In a statement, Scott Faber, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said, ““While this legislation falls short of what’s needed, we’re hopeful that President Obama will give the EPA the direction and resources needed to quickly review, regulate and, if needed, ban the most dangerous chemicals in commerce. Unless EPA acts to quickly remove chemicals linked to cancer from everyday products, the burden will continue to falls on states and consumers.”
Highlights of TSCA Reform
The new law requires EPA to evaluate existing chemicals, with clear and enforceable deadlines. Under the old law, thousands of chemicals already in existence in 1976 were considered in compliance, without any requirement or schedule for EPA to review them for safety.
EPA now is required to systematically prioritize and evaluate chemicals on a specific and enforceable schedule. Within a few years, EPA’s chemicals program will have to assess at least 20 chemicals at a time, beginning another chemical review as soon as one is completed.
Andy Igrejas, the director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a broad coalition of health, environmental, labor and business organizations, noted limitations in H.R. 2576, and said the president’s signature on the bill “marks both the end of a long process, and the beginning of a new chapter as the EPA puts its new authority to work. The chemical backlog is enormous. It’s vital that EPA starts strong and extracts the maximum public health benefits possible from the new law.”
Under the new law, EPA will evaluate chemicals purely on the basis of the health risks they pose. The old law was so burdensome that it prevented EPA from taking action to protect public health and the environment, even when a chemical posed a known health threat. Now, EPA will have evaluate a chemical’s safety purely based on the health risks it poses – including to vulnerable groups like children and the elderly, and to workers who use chemicals daily as part of their jobs – and then take steps to eliminate any unreasonable risks it finds.
Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said, ““While this legislation falls short of what’s needed, we’re hopeful that President Obama will give the EPA the direction and resources needed to quickly review, regulate and, if needed, ban the most dangerous chemicals in commerce. Unless EPA acts to quickly remove chemicals linked to cancer from everyday products, the burden will continue to falls on states and consumers.”
Finally, the new law provides a consistent source of funding for EPA to carry out its new responsibilities. EPA will now be able to collect up to $25 million a year in user fees from chemical manufacturers and processers, supplemented by congressional budgeting, to pay for increased evaluations of chemicals.