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Chemical Safety Reform Gains Momentum in Congress

Two bills in Congress would dramatically strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) ability to regulate chemicals. The bills shift the burden of proof to industry, which would have to demonstrate the safety of existing and new chemicals. That's a major change from the existing system, in which EPA must prove that chemicals are harmful before it can regulate them.

"This is a monumental sea change," says Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. A major chemical industry trade group is also backing the reforms but has concerns about key details in the bills.

The current legislation that governs chemical regulation, the Toxic Substances Control Act, has not been updated since it was passed in 1976, and its requirements have restricted EPA's ability to regulate chemicals.

For example, EPA must show that a chemical poses a health risk before it can require companies to provide safety data.

Under a bill introduced today by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), companies would have to provide a minimum set of data to EPA, which would have the authority to also ask for more details in order to determine safety. For existing chemicals, companies would have 15 years to provide data. But EPA would have to create a high-priority list of 300 chemicals that it considers most dangerous and that require faster evaluation.

Environmentalists are concerned about the process for new chemicals, which is somewhat looser. If companies determine that a new chemical is unlikely to pose a health risk—for example if it's not expected to be carcinogenic or produced in high volumes—then EPA won't go through the data set to assess its safety before it's commercialized. "It makes no sense to provide such a loophole," said Maureen Swanson of the Learning Disabilities Association of America in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a teleconference with reporters.

A big question is how to evaluate safety. The bill adopts a definition used by EPA to evaluate pesticides, which calls for a "reasonable certainty of no harm." It would require a calculation of all routes of exposure, such as from eating food or breathing dust. That's going to be much more complicated for industrial chemicals, which can be used in thousands of products, says Cal Dooley, president and chief executive officer of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Virginia. "We don't know whether it's technically possible to comply with," he says.

The bill also contains an exemption for chemicals used in small quantities for research or analysis. It also directs EPA to create a green chemistry research grant program and establish a network of at least four research centers to help find safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals.

Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released a similar discussion draft today and intends to have hearings in June or July.