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Thanks to Bipartisanship, a "Witches' Brew of Unregulated Chemicals" Still Threatens Consumers

After four decades, lawmakers agreed to updates to Toxic Substances Control Act, but review and regulation of thousands of chemicals on market will still be lacking

Andrea Germanos

U.S. lawmakers have just passed legislation to finally update how toxic chemicals are regulated, but, according to watchdog groups, the changes to "the worst environmental law on the books" still leave consumers at risk.

The House voted to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) last month, and the Senate passed the measure Tuesday in a voice vote.

As Reuters sums up,

The bill would update the Toxic Substances Control Act amid complaints that its 40-year-old provisions hobble the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from effectively regulating chemicals, including those ranging from asbestos and flame retardants to everyday household products.

It got thumbs up from groups like National Association of Chemical Distributors, the National Association of Manufacturers, and "industry champion" and lead Republican author of the act, Sen. David Vitter (La.).

In addition to that backing, though, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said ahead of his chamber's vote, "I’ve never seen a more diverse crowd in total agreement than we are with TSCA." The Associated Press also reports that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle "spoke enthusiastically about the legislation."

Indeed, it's been widely described as compromise. Inhofe, for example, told Politico, "You had people who liked it because it was a major environmental achievement and then people who liked it for just the opposite reason."

When it passed the House on May 24, co-sponsor John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said it was "a vast improvement over current law."

On that point, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) agrees. But making a few adjustments to what it describes as a severely flawed law still means it falls quite short, the advocacy group argues. EWG senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber explains some of its specific shortcomings:

The law that Congress now sends to President Barack Obama’s desk will give EPA the direction and resources to review and regulate, at most, a few hundred chemicals over the next decade — out of thousands used in the market. The new bill will do nothing to require the FDA to review and regulate the chemicals routinely used in food and cosmetics. While pesticide residues on produce have been reviewed, thousands of other pesticides have escaped meaningful government oversight. The net result is that consumers will continue to be exposed to a witches’ brew of unregulated chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.

Faber further argues that

The legislation is certainly better than the Toxic Substances Control of Act of 1976, which is viewed by both industry and public health advocates as badly broken. In particular, the bill headed for the president’s signature requires EPA to assess the safety of new chemicals before they enter the market and directs EPA to review old chemicals that have been used for decades without consideration of safety. The bill also gives EPA the power to collect data on chemical use and toxicity, and requires chemical companies to back up their trade secret claims. But these reforms say more about the weakness of the “worst environmental law on the books” than about the merit of the bill itself.

According to Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, it's a "compromise bill [...] puts industry interests first and lets down women at risk of and living with breast cancer."

She notes that "the Senate version of the bill was written by the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s biggest lobbying group."

"One of the biggest problems," she continues,

is a provision, referred to as the “pause” provision, that would block a state’s ability to protect their residents from toxic chemicals—even when federal action is years away. This provision would stop the ability of states to create and implement laws around a toxic chemical as soon as that chemical went under review by the federal government—a process that can take years! During that time, states cannot protect their residents from exposure to these chemicals of greatest concern.

And the chemical industry's support of the bill is not surprising, adds Carli Jensen, toxics campaign director at U.S. PIRG, as

It handcuffs state regulators, who have been the top cops on the toxic beat for decades. This proposal could best be characterized as one step forward and two steps back. Congress should have done better to protect public health.

Further, as Bloomberg reports:

implementing the proposed law will be a herculean task for an agency with scarce resources, former officials and lawyers say. By the time EPA finishes work on the chemicals it has prioritized, the children of today’s children will have been exposed to them -- probably for years.

According to a press statement from Sen. Vitter, "the White House confirmed that President Obama would sign the bill into law."

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