After a year of working with environmental groups, government regulators and the chemical industry, a leading advocate for chemical regulation has devised a plan to remake the nation's chemical laws -- a 34-year-old set of regulations that all players agree is outmoded and ineffective.
The plan, contained in legislation that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is set to file Thursday, would require manufacturers to prove the safety of chemicals before they enter the marketplace. That would be a significant departure from current laws, which allow chemicals to be used unless the federal government can prove they cause harm to health or the environment.
"We're saying those who make the chemicals -- and there are 700 new ones that come to market each year -- ought to be responsible for testing them first before they're released to the public, instead of having the EPA play detective to search and try to find problems," Lautenberg said.
The bill would also mandate that manufacturers submit health and safety data to the EPA for 84,000 chemicals in use. The agency would review the information to determine whether the chemicals are safe enough to remain on the market.
Under current laws, the government has little or no information about the risks of most chemicals in use. The government cannot act unless a chemical poses a health threat, but the EPA cannot force companies to provide data that show risks.
The hurdles are so high that the government has been unable to ban asbestos, widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries. The bill would make it significantly easier for the EPA to restrict or ban chemicals that are known hazards.
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson called the legislation a major "step forward."
Lautenberg has tried twice to revamp the chemical laws but this time has support from the White House, environmentalists and, most importantly, the chemical industry.
"We're certainly not going to be an obstruction," said Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council. "We are committed to being constructively engaged in their efforts to move this legislation forward."
Linda Fisher, vice president of safety, health and the environment at DuPont, called the bill "a good starting point."
The chemical industry has long insisted that the 1976 federal laws governing toxic chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, has been working well. But growing concerns have sparked legislatures to ban or restrict a number of controversial chemicals, creating a patchwork of restrictions and a regulatory nightmare for companies. The manufacturers want one set of federal standards to establish some predictability and reassure the public that everyday products are safe, Dooley said.
The chemical industry remains wary about some aspects of the bill yet to be clearly defined, such as how regulators will determine whether a chemical is "safe."
"That is going to be one of the most critical issues, in terms of finding consensus between consumers, environmental groups, industry and the policy makers: What is the appropriate risk standard?" Dooley said.
No Republican senators have signed on to Lautenberg's bill, but his staff said they did not expect strong GOP opposition. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) is expected to file companion legislation.