Senators Work Together to Ensure Safer Chemicals

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BornFree glass baby bottles are seen on display in the foreground as a mother shops at Babies'R'Us, Tuesday, March 11, 2008 in Peabody, Massachusetts. (Photo by Lisa Poole/AP)

BornFree glass baby bottles are seen on display in the foreground as a mother shops at Babies’R’Us in Peabody, Massachusetts. (Photo by Lisa Poole/AP)

A bipartisan bill unveiled Wednesday by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and David Vitter (R-LA) would give the Environmental Protection Agency more power to ensure the safety of chemicals before they are allowed to go to market.

As public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz explained on last week’s Moyers & Company, existing legislation allowed the EPA to test chemicals only after there was cause to believe they were dangerous. Of the 84,000 registered chemicals in the United States, only about 200 have been tested. Each year, another 700 chemicals are introduced into the environment. They argued that the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act was in great need of a major overhaul, but that they didn’t expect new legislation to pass anytime soon.

In the compromise bill, lauded by industry and activists, it looks like they might get some of what they were hoping for. While the new version doesn’t go as far as the Safe Chemicals Act Lautenberg introduced last month, it covers some of the same territory, namely:

Require Safety Evaluations for All Chemicals: All active chemicals in commerce must be evaluated for safety and labeled as either “high” or “low” priority chemical based on potential risk to human health and the environment. For high priority chemicals, EPA must conduct further safety evaluations.

Protect Public Health from Unsafe Chemicals: If a chemical is found to be unsafe, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the necessary authority to take action. This can range from labeling requirements to the full phase-out or ban of a chemical.

Prioritize Chemicals for Review: The Environmental Protection Agency will have to transparently assess risk, determine safety, and apply any needed measures to manage risks.

Screen New Chemicals for Safety: New chemicals entering the market must be screened for safety and the EPA is given the authority to prohibit unsafe chemicals from entering the market.

Secure Necessary Health and Safety Information: The legislation allows EPA to secure necessary health and safety information from chemical manufacturers, while directing EPA to rely first on existing information to avoid duplicative testing.

Promote Innovation and Safer Chemistry: This legislation provides clear paths to getting new chemistry on the market and protects trade secrets and intellectual property from disclosure.

Protect Children and Pregnant Women: The legislation requires EPA to evaluate the risks posed to particularly vulnerable populations, such as children and pregnant women, when evaluating the safety of a chemical—a provision not included in existing law.

Give States and Municipalities a Say: States and local governments will have the opportunity to provide input on prioritization, safety assessment and the safety determination processes, requiring timely response from EPA, and the bill establishes a waiver process to allow state regulations or laws to remain in effect when circumstances warrant it.

The new bill was a surprise to many because the two senators had reportedly been working on competing bills for months. Lautenberg was updating a 2011 bill that had made it through committee that year, but never came to a vote. Vitter was said to be working on a bill with help from the American Chemistry Council. In an interesting report, E&E‘s Jason Plautz writes that Vitter’s staff reached out to Lautenberg’s, they discovered that their bills had a lot more common ground than previously thought and they worked out a compromise.

Although some activists consider the new bill a step back from Lautenberg’s original, most agreed that the bipartisan bill had more of a chance of passage and were generally positive about the direction it takes. Andy Igregas, executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, told Politico: “On the one hand, the bill gives EPA new tools to protect the public from toxic chemicals. It also gives state governments, who have made important gains in public health protections, a continued role in chemical regulation. On the other hand, the bill omits many of the deadlines in the Lautenberg/Gillibrand legislation, its special focus on heavily impacted communities and other important provisions.”

Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, called the bill a “policy and political breakthrough.” He told Politico that “while this bill represents a hard-fought compromise, it opens, at last, a bipartisan path forward to fix our badly outmoded system to ensure the safety of chemicals in everyday use.”

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