Will TSCA Reform Change Anything?

#EcoAdvice from our expert

Dear Dr. Donley,

Now that the chemical reform bill has been signed into law, I’m wondering whether it’ll actually have any effect on the number of harmful chemicals we’re exposed to every day.


Keeping an Ion Chemical Reform

Dear Best Chemistry Pun I’ve Heard in Awhile,

The short answer is: Don’t get your hopes up. The extent of change will largely depend on the EPA, and any change that occurs will come very slowly.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has been the major law governing chemical regulation in this country since the 1970s. As a law, it’s pretty worthless — and it’s one of the major reasons we’re constantly reacting to harmful chemicals in our environment instead of proactively keeping them out. Wonder why asbestos is still used in your car’s brake pads and vinyl floor tiles? Look no further.

Just this year President Obama signed a TSCA reform into law. There were a lot of groups and politicians fighting the good fight to gain as many protections as possible in a tough political climate, and their tireless work should in no way be diminished. Although this bill could have been a lot better, it also could have been a lot worse.

That said, the chemical industry unfortunately got most of what it wanted in the new TSCA reform bill — which is to say, the status quo. Instead of putting the burden on industry to prove a chemical is safe before it gets widely used, the burden’s still squarely on the government’s shoulders to demonstrate harm if it wants to prohibit a given chemical from commerce. And the pace of regulation is still exceptionally slow: It can take up to seven years to assess the safety of just one chemical.

Worse yet, the reform bill goes far beyond TSCA in federal action preempting state law. This means that if the EPA enacts weak regulations on a chemical, states can no longer enact stronger regulations — a huge blow to forward-thinking states like California and some in New England. But states shouldn’t give up hope; there are still ways they can continue to move the ball forward.

And there are some silver linings to the reform. When analyzing chemical safety, the EPA now doesn’t need to take into account the cost-effectiveness of its decision; also, it will be easier for the agency to require toxicity testing for new chemical approvals.

So bottom line, asbestos and a dozen or so of the worst-of-the-worst will, I hope, be banned or phased out in the next decade. But with around 85,000 chemicals already approved for manufacture or import into the United States, this is little comfort. What we really needed was a complete paradigm shift, and what we got was TSCA-lite.

Still, I’m a beaker-half-full kind of guy, and I think public pressure is going to play a bigger role than ever in getting companies to voluntarily reduce their use of dangerous chemicals. So sign that petition, protest at that rally, and buy your necessities from companies that share your values.

Stay wild,

Dr. Donley

Dr. Nathan Donley is a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who answers questions about how environmental toxins affect people, wildlife and the environment. Send him your questions at AskDrDonley@biologicaldiversity.org

Read the previous Ask Dr. Donley installment How Can I Avoid BPA?”