The United States has been living without chemical reform for far too long! We have been living with the same horrible chemical act since 1976 – pretty much, my whole life. Yes, our generation has been the guinea pigs!! Commonly referred to as TSCA, the Toxic Substances Chemical Act has done little to regulate the chemicals which are used in common household products. As the organization Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families states,
Nearly forty years later, we now have 84,000 chemicals in commerce with no health and safety information for the vast majority of them, and marked increases in chronic health problems linked to chemical exposures.”
TSCA was broken and outdated. Even the President’s Cancer Panel chided the act saying that TSCA is “the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of chemical contaminants” and noting that weaknesses in the law have constrained EPA from being able to properly regulate known carcinogens.”
The flawed system allowed tens of thousands of chemicals to remain on the market without any safety review and allowed chemical companies to put hundreds of new chemicals on the market every year without demonstrating that they were safe. It makes me so upset to think of all of the lives which have been negatively impacted by this horrible law. Unfortunately, I am one of them.
A few years ago, when I began learning more about the chemicals I was being exposed to on a regular basis, I read about Senator Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey. He had been trying for years to pass a Safe Chemicals Act to reform TSCA. (I later found out that he was also instrumental in the fight to ban smoking on commercial airplanes). At the time, he, a Democrat, teamed up with David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana. In 2013, they finally got a vote on the bill, but 6 weeks later, at the age of 89, Sen. Lautenberg died. I was disheartened because the person who had fought so long for chemical reform was gone. Fortunately, Senator Vitter continued the fight. Over the past 3 years, the Safe Chemicals Act morphed into the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. In the spring of 2016, both houses passed the bill. On June 22, 2016, President Obama signed it into law. This “final bill gives EPA important new powers to require chemical testing and to take action to restrict priority chemicals”.
What Are Some of the Key Points in The New Chemical Reform Bill?
According to some, this current law is better than the Safe Chemicals Act, which was initially proposed, and is definitely better than TSCA. However, there are still some issues with it that those of us as consumers need to be aware of.
- The new law makes it a little easier for the EPA to test chemicals. The EPA is now required to deploy a “tiered testing” approach. Chemicals which raise a red flag in a screening level test can require more extensive testing. However, there isn’t anything in the bill that requires the EPA to use this new authority. In addition, the chemical backlog is enormous as literally thousands of chemicals will need to be reviewed.
- The new law requires new chemicals to have a safety finding before they can enter the market. That’s roughly 1000 chemicals each year.
- In regards to new chemicals, the new law will require the “EPA to make an affirmative finding that the chemical is likely not to present an unreasonable risk before it can commence production”.
- The EPA will now decide whether to regulate a chemical based on health and environmental factors.
- TSCA stipulated that the EPA must choose the “least burdensome” way of addressing the risk posed by a chemical. The new law removes that requirement.
- The new law sets enforceable deadlines for EPA decisions. However, the deadlines are very generous giving them up to 7 years (if needed) in order to formulate restrictions.
- The new law will make more information available about chemicals as it prevents the industry from hiding information on their chemicals.
- The new law gives more power at the federal level and will make it a little more difficult for state regulators to impose their own restrictions on harmful ingredients. States can initiate new restrictions on a chemical until the EPA names the chemical as High Priority. If that happens, states are then prohibited from establishing new restrictions on that chemical.
- The new law expedites action on 30+ chemicals which are considered to pose greater risks to public health and the environment. This expedited process will require restriction within three years.
Concerns with the New Bill
While I am grateful that the United States finally has an updated policy on chemicals, there are still some concerns. Also, as with any law, there are some loopholes. I agree with statements made from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Environmental Working Group.
Andy Igrejas, Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:
President Obama’s signature on this 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.
Because of the limitations in this bill, however, it will also be crucial that the growing demand for safer chemicals continue across society, from state and local governments, retailers, manufacturers and informed consumers.”
While the legislation Congress now sends to the president makes improvements to the worst environmental law on the books, it does not meet the reasonable expectations of American consumers. In particular, the bill may not provide EPA with the resources or clear legal authority the agency needs to quickly review and, if needed, ban dangerous chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health problems.”
We As Consumers Need to Keep Up Our Guards
As these organizations have advised, we as consumers need to stay involved and keep up our guards. Change will come, but it might not all happen in our lifetime. “Addressing the thousands of chemicals in the marketplace that we already know pose a toxic risk could take several generations.”
Also, since there isn’t anything in the bill that requires the EPA to use their new authority in regards to additional testing, we need to continue to be educated consumers and demand that the EPA actually does it.
As Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families suggest, “Consumer-driven campaigns will probably still produce more change, more quickly than EPA can. So keep reading labels and keep taking action for your own family and the broader world. Keep pressuring companies to substitute safer chemicals for unsafe ones. Keep holding your retailers accountable for what they sell through our Mind the Store campaign and similar efforts. But now, also help us keep EPA’s feet to the fire to use their new powers to the maximum degree.”
As consumers, we still need to insist on safer products. As we have already seen, manufacturers and retailers are listening. It is possible for us to drive change at a quicker rate than the EPA. Our health depends on it!