(Editor’s Note: Several weeks ago, a rare thing happened in Washington: Members of the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, announced a bipartisan compromise on a long-awaited bill to modernize the nation’s regulation of toxic chemicals. It won the support across the ideological gamut, from the American Chemistry Council to the White House. The legislation passed the House last month on a lopsided 408-12 vote and the Senate followed suit Tuesday evening, approving the measure on a voice vote. So what’s not to like? We asked the respected Environmental Working Group, one of the few dissenting voices on the bill.)
Most Americans assume that the chemicals used in everyday products have been reviewed for safety by a trustworthy government regulator. The truth is that the vast majority of the chemicals used in everything from cleaners and carpets to cosmetics and candy bars have never been reviewed by either the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration. And, despite the bipartisan chemical safety law Congress just passed, that sad fact will remain largely the same.
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.
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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.
Perhaps this is all that could be expected from a deeply divided Congress that is far more likely to restrict regulators like EPA than to grant an agency new power to assure the public’s safety. But, the bill now headed for Obama’s signature falls far short of what’s needed. As a result, it will be up to the next Congress — and the next administration — to ensure that the most dangerous chemicals in everyday products have been reviewed and, if needed, regulated or even banned.
The right question is not whether the new chemical safety legislation is better than current law. The right question is whether the bill will meet the reasonable expectations of ordinary Americans.