Lawmakers update a 40-year- old chemical safety law.
Story by Frederica Kolwey and Jesse Nichols
President Gerald Ford signed the Toxic Substances Control Act into law in 1976, a time before cars required seat belts and gasoline still contained lead. The law gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to track and regulate toxic household chemicals, and supporters praised it as a major step for chemical safety. In the 40 years since, the EPA successfully banned only nine chemicals under TSCA.
In June of this year, President Obama signed a new version of the law, now called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. It is the first time the bill has been updated since 1976. Critics called the original law ineffective, not giving the EPA enough real power to keep dangerous chemicals off the market. Despite the updates to the law, environmental advocates and some government officials have criticized it for not going far enough to protect public safety.
“We are disappointed in what the reform ended up looking like based on what it could have been,” said Holly Davies, a senior toxicologist for the Washington State Department of Ecology and a member of the EPA’s Chemical Safety Advisory Committee for TSCA. “It doesn’t actually give EPA as much authority as it looks like.”
The new law requires the EPA to test the safety of every chemical on the market today as well as any new chemicals developed in the future. By some estimates this means reviewing over 80,000 chemicals.
The law states the EPA must identify and begin evaluating 20 chemicals within three and a half years. At a rate of 20 chemicals every three and a half years, it would take over a thousand years to get through all 80,000 chemicals, not to mention the estimated 1,000 new chemicals introduced each year.
“We’re slogging along at the rate U.S. politics permits these things to happen,” said John Kissel, a professor in the environmental and occupational health sciences department at the University of Washington and a member of the EPA Advisory Committee. “In a politically pragmatic kind of way, we’re moving forward.”
Kissel hopes technology can improve to significantly speed up the process. Scientists can often group chemicals together based on similarities in their chemical properties to estimate potential human health or environmental risks.
That’s what scientists like Kissel are trying to do. He’s part of a group researching how toxic chemicals affect people. He is working with a program that combines data on chemical properties and human interaction with the environment to model the risks people face from exposure to different chemicals. The ultimate goal is to have enough data to predict how a chemical compound will affect someone without having to wait until they are actually exposed.
As of now, the EPA has tested five chemicals and is in the process of evaluating almost a dozen more. The EPA also listed five other chemicals it plans to regulate within three years that are known to be especially toxic, bioaccumulative and persistent in the environment. Under a special provision of the new law, the EPA can pass regulations on these chemicals without completing a full risk evaluation.
Any regulations the EPA passes under TSCA create a national standard for chemical safety. Unlike other federal legislation, like the Clean Air Act, states can’t pass more stringent regulations on top of what the EPA sets under TSCA.
States like Washington have passed some of the nation’s strictest chemical safety laws. Critics argued national regulations could lead to lower overall safety standards. A national standard also makes it easier for chemical manufacturing companies to do business nationwide, allowing them to conduct “one-stop regulatory shopping,” as Kissel calls it.
Any chemical legislation passed before April 22, 2016 is safe from the new federal law, though. Slipping in just under the wire on April 1, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law banning the use of five flame retardants at a concentration higher than 1,000 parts per million in any children’s products or residential upholstered furniture. Washington also restricts the use of lead, cadmium, mercury, phthalates — a class of chemicals used in plastic goods — and bisphenol-A — a chemical used mostly in food packaging. All of this legislation will not change with the new federal law.
While the law might not be the massive overhaul some were hoping for, its many caveats might allow states like Washington to continue advocating for stricter chemical reform alongside the EPA’s slow march toward change. The EPA looks at evidence from scientists in Washington to inform its decisions, and the law is relatively lenient in what it allows states to continue to regulate on their own, Davies said.
“I don’t think the EPA’s actions will hamper what we’re doing,” she said.