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Be Wary of Chemical Safety “Reform”

By Brianna Knoppow

It’s a curious thing that only after Senator Frank Lautenberg died did his life’s work – to enact chemical reform legislation – finally start to pick up momentum. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S. 647) was introduced in March of 2015 and is ostensibly meant to modernize the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The TSCA is so toothless that of the approximately 85,000 chemicals produced, the EPA has tested 200 chemicals, banning only five. Though Lautenberg worked for more than a decade to make chemical reform a reality, only recently have Congress members worked to make TSCA reform a priority. With a record 40 co-sponsors, one might initially assume that the bipartisan bill really is designed to protect Americans from the most harmful of chemicals.

Remember the Healthy Forest Initiative of 2003, a giveaway to the timber industry? Or the proposed Clear Skies Act of 2003 – which was really an attack on the Clean Air Act? Naming S. 647 a “Chemical Safety” bill is likewise disingenuous.

For many proposed bills, compromises must be made, but occasionally the compromises deviate the bill so far from its original intent that passage may do more harm than good. There are a few major issues that need to be resolved in S. 647:

Currently states are the leaders in the realm of chemical regulation, having adopted laws and regulations that restrict the sale or use of products containing harmful chemicals. Minnesota just passed a bill restricting certain flame retardants. Maine is phasing out BPA in baby bottles. Iowa restricts the use of mercury-containing thermostats. According to a joint statement by the attorneys general of New York, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Oregon and Washington, “ In contrast to the existing law, S. 647 would prevent states from adopting new laws or regulations, or taking other administrative action.”

  1. Though it makes sense from an industry perspective to have to adapt one’s products to regulations that are uniform throughout the country, the bill has the potential to bar states from creating or implementing new regulations if the EPA is studying a chemical or even considering regulating it. There could be years in which the EPA is studying the chemical and no state is permitted to regulate it. It’s easy to see where the chemical industry support of the bill came from.

  2. With monumental cuts to EPA it’s unlikely the agency will have the staff or resources to conduct studies within the proposed deadlines. Though S. 647 allows the EPA to collect industry fees, these fees are up to a cap, rather than until the work is done and the studies are complete.

  3. The chosen chemicals. EPA would be required to create a list of ‘low priority’ chemicals, which will then be barred from undergoing a full evaluation. Additionally, with an ‘industry request’ policy, industry – not the EPA – has the power to determine the majority of chemicals the agency evaluates. Industry probably won’t be basing its decision by which chemicals pose the greatest threat to human health.

Who supports S. 647? Republicans and a plethora of moderate democrats. As for environmental stalwarts, Senator Barbara Boxer came up with a competing bill of her own that includes stricter standards for chemical safety evaluations. So far though, it has not been given the light of day. The House also has a proposed bill of its own. As for S. 647, until it addresses the above concerns and is in the spirit of Senator Lautenberg’s tireless work to protect public health, the “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act” is not worthy of Lautenberg’s name…or passage.

To summarize the three proposed TSCA reform bills:Bill nameFrank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S. 647)TSCA Modernization Act of 2015 (H.R. 2576)Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act (S. 725)Main bill sponsorSen. Udall, Tom [D-NM]Rep. Shimkus, John [R-IL]Sen. Boxer, Barbara [D-CA]Co-sponsor count40 (21 R, 19 D)16 (8 R, 8 D)5 (4 D, 1 I)FundingFees, with a capAppropriationsIndustry would be required to provide the funding necessary to do timely safety reviews.Number of chemicals reviewedGives EPA up to five years to start safety reviews of 25 chemicals and would allow the agency up to seven years to assess each one.EPA will initiate 10 assessments per year.Start evaluating 75 chemicals within five years and would allow only up to six years for each one.

Brianna Knoppow works in the environmental field in D.C. and enjoys biking, kayaking, and foraging for wild mushrooms. She has an M.S. in Environmental Science & Policy.


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