New Federal Chemical Safety Act Makes Progress

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

A new chemical safety bill is the first significant update to the environmental health measure in many years, which will improve living standards for families who may live near places through which chemicals pollute the environment.

Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Health Michael Green writes in a blog for The Huffington Post that the update does include some progressive changes. For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must test chemicals and determine if they are safe, based only on the environmental effects and the impact on human health.

The assessments will have enforceable targets and deadlines provided by the agency. The EPA must also recognize those who are most vulnerable to exposure of chemicals, including children and people who live near chemical polluters, when it develops new regulations concerning chemicals.

However, the bill has weak provisions as well. Of the over 80,000 chemicals being sold currently, the EPA has noted that a minimum of 1,000 are of concern and should be reviewed as quickly as possible. This urgency makes it shocking that the bill gives the EPA as long as seven years per review, Green writes. Since the agency has a history of missing deadlines, it is possible that some of these chemicals will not be tested for decades.

Another provision that is troublesome is that the EPA cannot ban imports of products, such as children's merchandise that contains harmful chemicals, unless it finds that the product is apt to expose consumers. Companies do not have to disclose their products' chemical makeup, so the EPA will not have solid information on which it can base decisions.

This loophole in particular represents a fundamental setback from the law that is currently in place. And states that have been protecting their children and families from dangerous chemicals in spite of having no federal controls will now come against obstacles that will prevent them from providing much-needed shields.

For example, state laws have been responsible for a national response against products like BPA in baby bottles and products for kids with toxic flame retardants. Now these state efforts will possibly be curbed.

Green says for his home state California, the law protects Prop 65 that eliminated nationwide sales of hundreds of toxic products, including:

"… arsenic-based wood playground equipment, shampoo containing cancer-causing chemicals, lead-containing materials in baby bibs, children's jewelry, and lunch boxes, and harmful chemicals used in many other products."

Green adds that now is the time for Americans to monitor the EPA and push state legislators to act. Read all labels, hold companies accountable if they use questionable chemicals, write letters to and call elected officials and state and federal regulators, he recommends.

The "Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act" was signed in June and comprehensively changed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It will provide, writes The National Law Review, more certainty for regulating chemicals already in the stream of commerce.

The new edicts will preempt state rules related to chemicals, but state chemical restrictions passed prior to April 22, 2016, and any new actions protected under a state law that were in place before April 31, 2003, will be grandfathered. The law is creating a national framework for regulation of chemicals rather than a state-by-state design. The changes also give the EPA greater authority and a more streamlined rule-making process.

Bonnie Lautenberg worked to get the law passed to honor her late husband, Frank Lautenberg, one of the nation's foremost environmentalists, said President Obama in a speech at the bill signing of the new chemical safety act.

The address included optimism from the president:

"The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century will make it easier for the EPA to review chemicals already on the market, as well as the new chemicals our scientists and our businesses design. It will do away with an outdated bureaucratic formula to evaluate safety, and instead focus solely on the risks to our health. And it will finally grant our scientists and our public servants at the EPA the funding they need to get the job done and keep us safe."

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