U.S. House Takes up Toxic Chemical Reform Bill

U.S. House Takes up Toxic Chemical Reform Bill

Bottles - CC license by Flickr user Colin Gregory Palmer

 A bill aimed at revamping U.S. chemical policy was introduced in the House of Representatives yesterday, mostly mirroring a similar bill in the Senate but with differences that would force speedy action on especially dangerous chemicals and provide companies with information on a wide swath of chemicals quicker.

The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 (TCSA), introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., would make sweeping changes to the Environmental Protection Agency's chemical policies, which were set by the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act.

Companies currently do not have to prove chemicals are safe before putting them on the market; the government must determine when a chemical is dangerous. Both this House bill and the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, introduced in the Senate in April, would change that.

There are more than 84,000 chemicals registered in the United States. The government needs to meet a high standard of harm to take action on a chemical, and has been unable to even ban the use of asbestos.

"Industries would have to demonstrate safety rather than the government have to prove harm. That is a key concept there," said Andy Igrejas, director of the environment and health group coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

TCSA would also require chemical companies to provide a minimum set of information on all chemicals, evaluate chemical safety based on the way they are actually used, determine priority chemicals to reduce and identify geographic locations where people are disproportionately exposed to chemicals. Safety determinations would be based on advice from National Academy of Sciences, a requirement that is not in the Senate bill.

Under TCSA, to stay on the market or to be allowed in, chemicals would need to meet a health-based standard of safety. Both bills, Igrejas said, use the phrase "reasonable certainly of no harm," which previously appeared in the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, setting a new standard for evaluating pesticides.

"It basically means that the risk you allow from the chemical is pretty minimal and it shouldn't be harming people," Igrejas said. The addition of that concept to pesticide policy led to a review of pesticide ingredients on the market. "Many of them wound up being restricted, many were exonerated, some were completely banned, but more often they were limited for certain uses," Igrejas said.

All chemicals would need to meet that standard unless they are inherently unsafe, a use of the chemical is safer than one on the market, or if the chemical's use is of critical importance, such as in a national defense or life-saving application.

Where TCSA differs from the Senate bill is the timeframe it would impose for making information on chemicals public and certain chemicals it would prioritize.

"It has a much clearer information requirement and one that is more likely to help companies that are trying to implement their own chemical policies or screen out chemicals," Igrejas said.

TCSA would require that health and safety data on chemicals be developed and made public by the EPA within five years. The Senate version, Igrejas said, would require companies to turn in information on chemicals that are put on a priority list, linking the gathering of information to the EPA's safety determinations, but information on other chemicals could be delayed for much longer.

The House bill also puts a special emphasis on chemicals know to be persistent and bioaccumulative, meaning they remain and build up in nature and humans. Those toxics would be singled out and moved straight to the action phase. 

"That is kind of a key thing that will save EPA resources," Igrejas said. "It will make it more likely that there are public health protections in the near term and focus EPA resources on the right questions." 

Bottles - CC license by Flickr user Colin Gregory Palmer