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An overhaul for the nation's chemical safety law?

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The main law that regulates chemicals in products we use every day is called the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Pretty much everyone says this law is outdated - including the chemical industry and environmental groups.

Rebecca Meuninck is the Environmental Health Campaign Director with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

“TSCA or the Toxic Substances Control Act, was passed in 1976 and it’s never been reformed and unfortunately it’s sort of been broken from the start," she says. “This is a bill that didn’t actually have enough teeth for the EPA to ban asbestos for example. We have many thousands of chemicals; up to 80,000 have been approved at one point or another for use in consumer products or in the marketplace. Unfortunately there’s a lot of data EPA doesn’t have and that companies actually aren’t required to give EPA.”

She says around 65,000 chemicals were grandfathered in when the bill passed.

Bipartisan support for an overhaul

The U.S. Senate is considering a bill to overhaul TSCA (the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, S. 1009). Yesterday, a Senate committee heard testimony from the chemical industry, health and environmental groups.

The late Senator Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey was a huge champion of improving chemical safety.  He made several attempts to update TSCA, but they didn’t get anywhere.  But then, shortly before he died, he introduced the bill now before Congress.

Cal Dooley is the President and CEO of the American Chemistry Council.

“That’s what’s so dramatic in terms of the change in events, when you had support from Senator Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, and Sen. Lautenberg, a Democrat, from New Jersey, that introduced a very balanced and bipartisan proposal that has broad support among both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate,” he says.

Dooley says the bill gives EPA more authority, but also protects business interests.

But a number of others say the new bill is too weak.

Attorneys general from nine states signed a letteryesterday. They want their states to be able to make their own laws on chemical safety. They say this bill could make it difficult or even impossible to do that.

The American Chemistry Council’s Cal Dooley says there are good reasons to have one uniform federal standard.

“We don’t want to have 50 standards out there that impede commerce and impede the interests of manufacturers in Michigan or California or Maine or wherever they reside,” he says.

The attorneys general respond to that argument in their letter:

Any argument that existing preemption provisions will lead to a multitude of conflicting state requirements is misplaced. Over nearly 40 years, dating back to before the adoption of TSCA, states have been regulating chemical safety, and America has retained its leadership in chemicals research and manufacturing. We fully support Congress amending TSCA to enhance EPA’s resources and its ability to regulate chemicals, and we believe that if the existing TSCA preemption provisions are left in place, history has shown that the states will seek to harmonize state laws with federal requirements, and will enhance the effectiveness of federal law by devoting state resources to enforcement. Uniformity of regulation should not be achieved by sacrificing citizens’ health and the environment. Our citizens are better served when states are allowed to complement the federal government’s efforts. Innovative state laws often result in better regulation and more safeguards, particularly for vulnerable subpopulations such as children and pregnant women. State initiatives have served as templates for national standards. Further, states have a long history of enforcement and can contribute a nationwide network of experienced enforcement staff.

Protection of vulnerable groups

Environmental groups have other concerns about the bill.

The Ecology Center’s Rebecca Meuninck says it doesn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable people.

“We know a lot more through emerging science of the effects of chemicals on children, the developing fetus, pregnant women; communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollution, and the bill doesn’t explicitly require the safety determinations in TSCA to consider those vulnerable populations,” she says.

She says the bill is heading in the right direction. But she says the Ecology Center won’t support it without changes.

Two of the bill’s sponsors say they’re going to make some clarifications based on yesterday’s hearings. A rewrite could come in the fall.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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