Congress Renews Debate Over U.S. Chemical Policy Reform

Congress Renews Debate Over U.S. Chemical Policy Reform

Microscope - CC license by Tulane Public Relations (Flickr)

 With the introduction of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 today, Congress will once again discuss modernizing the country's 35-year-old chemicals laws.

"Our current law forces EPA to search for dangerous chemicals," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-N.J.), in a video announcing the bill. "This bill puts a mandate on companies to confirm safety before chemicals reach the market."

The bill [full text] is similar to one Lautenberg introduced last year, but with changes that respond to concerns raised by both industry and environmental groups. "It is very much a new and improved version of the bill introduced last year," said Richard Denison, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, during a call with reporters.

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), the government considers chemicals safe for use in the market unless they meet a high threshold for being considered unsafe. Case in point: The EPA has been prevented from banning asbestos, and can only test chemicals for safety once it's proven they are dangerous. 

The Safe Chemicals Act would instead require safety testing of all chemicals. Unlike last year's bill, this version would divide chemicals into three categories. The lowest category would include chemicals that are considered safe. The middle category would be for ones that need safety determinations, and the highest category would be for ones that require immediate action.

That top category would include chemicals that are persistant, bioaccumulative and toxic, meaning they don't break down in the environment and can build up in people and other living things.

The bill also requires the EPA to decide what minimum data is needed for each class of chemical in order to decide if they meet a safety standard.

Denison said the clearer prioritization process as well as variable data sets based on chemical priority were in response to concerns raised by industry players. "We need to make sure whatever system we put in place does expeditiously result in getting safety determinations on chemicals," Denison said, a matter that also speaks to industry worries that chemicals could end up in limbo during the testing process.

“The new bill introduced today moves in the right direction as it seeks to adopt important concepts of prioritization and tiered minimum data set requirements,” said Chris Cathcart, president and CEO of the Consumer Specialty Products Association, in a statement. “These two elements, along with the preservation of a risk based system, are essential components of any workable regulatory framework under TSCA."

Some tweaks were also made related to claims of confidential business information, which in the past had shielded safety information about chemicals from being revealed. Under the proposed bill, any confidential information shared with states will stay confidential, and the EPA would be given the authority to strip confidential status away from information previously claimed as secret.

Not all changes, though, are welcome by industry. "We remain concerned about other sections of the bill, including...the protection of confidential business information (CBI) and the safety standard," Cathcart said. "A bi-partisan dialogue can resolve these issues.”

Denison is also more optimistic about this year's bill. "We think there is a real prospect for finding common ground," he said.

Microscope - CC license by Tulane Public Relations (Flickr)