Industrial chemicals sign

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Updated: United States adopts major chemical safety overhaul

The U.S. Senate yesterday unanimously approved a major overhaul of the nation’s primary chemical safety law—marking one of the last steps in a decades-long reform effort. The House of Representatives on 24 May overwhelmingly approved the rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which governs how industrial chemicals are tested and regulated. The legislation now moves to President Barack Obama for signing.

The measure—H.R. 2576, named for the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ), a long-time TSCA reform champion—is perhaps the most far-reaching and influential environmental statute passed by Congress since the body updated the Clean Air Act in 1990. The measure aims to make chemical safety reviews more science-based, and includes provisions designed to reduce the use of animals in chemical testing and promote the study of so-called cancer clusters.

“The end result … is a vast improvement over current law,” said Representative John Shimkus (R–IL), who co-sponsored the House bill, on the House floor. The bill, he added, is “a careful compromise that’s good for consumers, good for jobs, and good for the environment.”

“While this is a compromise bill, it is a long overdue step forward in protecting families and communities from toxic chemicals,” said Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D–NJ), top Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Numerous fixes

Both environmentalists and industry have long agreed that the TSCA, originally passed in 1976, has numerous flaws. It includes legal barriers, for example, that essentially prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from acquiring toxicity data on chemicals and imposing new restrictions on them—even on highly toxic substances such as asbestos. Critics say the current legislation also favors economic concerns over scientific findings, and has led to thousands of chemicals entering the market without adequate health and safety oversight.

The reform bill seeks to fix a number of these flaws. It aims to make chemical safety reviews purely science-based, by eliminating a long-time requirement that EPA weigh regulatory costs in the safety review process. It also repeals a long-time requirement that EPA select the “least burdensome” method of regulating a toxic substance. And the bill would require EPA to deem a new chemical safe before it could enter the marketplace; under current law, a chemical can enter the marketplace unless EPA deems it unsafe within a certain time period.

The bill would also make it easier for EPA to order chemical companies to generate any toxicity data that the agency needs to inform its reviews; under current law, EPA can only order these data by going through a lengthy rulemaking process that often ends up mired in litigation. And the bill would require EPA to take tougher action on persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals, and ensure that chemicals are safe for vulnerable groups such as infants, seniors, and chemical workers.

Animal protection and animal rights groups hailed another provision that aims to reduce EPA and chemical companies’ use of animal-based toxicity testing methods. It would task EPA with using non–animal-based methods “to the extent practicable,” and the agency would have to devise a plan to research, develop, and eventually use more nonanimal methods—including computational modeling, high-throughput screening, and cell-culture testing.

The bill also includes a measure known as Trevor’s law that encourages federal agencies to study “cancer clusters”—areas that appear to have unusually high numbers of cancer cases that may be linked to a shared environmental cause. The Society of Toxicology in Reston, Virginia, although praising the bill, expressed some concern about including the cancer-cluster measure and other topic- or chemical-specific language in the bill. Doing so “detracts from the wider range of priority chemical-specific or analytical issues that, as toxicologists, we address every day,” society President John Morris said in a 23 May letter.

Rocky history

The TSCA reform bill is the result of years of negotiations involving lawmakers in both parties and a wide range of stakeholders. Many previous efforts to overhaul the TSCA failed after lawmakers couldn’t strike a consensus among competing interest groups, such as chemical companies and environmental groups. The current effort succeeded, however, despite the toxic political climate in Washington, D.C., and a government divided between a Democratic-held White House and Republican-held Congress.

To arrive at the current bill, the House and Senate first approved their own bipartisan—but widely different—versions of TSCA reform. Then, lawmakers spent months negotiating a compromise between the chambers.

It wasn’t clear for instance, whether the animal testing provisions—which were in the Senate bill, but not the House’s—would ultimately survive. “But the fact that we are now going to severely restrict the unnecessary cruelty to animals is something that I’m very proud that the leadership helped preserve,” Senator Cory Booker (D–NJ), a proponent of the language, told reporters outside the U.S. Capitol on 19 May in announcing his support of the bill.

A much bigger sticking point was concern, voiced by many liberal Democrats and environmental groups, that the legislation would weaken states’ ability to issue their own chemical regulations. Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA), the top Democrat on the Senate environment panel, had argued especially forcefully against language in the Senate bill that would have kept existing state chemical regulations on the books, but reduced the states’ ability to issue new regulations in the future.

But Boxer ultimately supported the final compromise. The final bill is far from perfect on that issue, but it’s better than current law, she said in announcing she would support the reform measure. “What a battle that was,” she said. “Well, we no longer have that battle.”

Not all lawmakers were won over. As the House voted 403 to 12 to approve the reform measure, Representative Paul Tonko (D–NY) cited the state preemption provisions as one reason he was voting against the bill. He was one of just nine House Democrats to oppose the bill; three House Republicans also voted against it.

The reform measure led to splits among interest groups. Some environmental and health groups, such as the Breast Cancer Fund, have opposed it, whereas still others, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, were noncommittal. But many industry groups and some environmental groups support the final product.

And Senator Bernie Sanders (D–VT), who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, sees both good and bad in the bill, but said that the preemption language would prevent his state from “going above and beyond” federal levels of action. “That makes no sense … federal chemical regulations should be a floor, not a ceiling,” Sanders said in a statement.

*Update, 8 June, 10:30 a.m.: This item has been updated to reflect the final Senate vote.

*Update, 26 May, 2:20 p.m.: This item has been updated to reflect current information on the timing of the Senate vote.