In a breakthrough political compromise, Senate Democrats and Republicans on May 22 jointly introduced legislation aimed at ensuring that chemicals used in commerce are screened for safety—a test not required by current law. The new bill (S. 1009) would rewrite the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law that has remained virtually unchanged since Congress passed it in 1976. And the effort has support from both the chemical industry and environmental activists.
Under the proposed law, the Environmental Protection Agency would have to determine whether tens of thousands of substances on the market are either high or low priority for further EPA evaluation, based on their potential risk to human health or the environment. EPA’s ability to act against substances found to be unsafe is vague under TSCA. But the new bill would strengthen and clarify EPA’s authority, letting the agency require changes to labels or to ban substances outright.
Two senators from states with large chemical industries, Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Republican David Vitter of Louisiana, hammered out the bill. It has the backing of 14 other lawmakers so far.
The measure is a “historic step toward meaningful reform that protects American families and consumers,” says Lautenberg, who has championed reform of TSCA since 2005. Legislation he sponsored to rewrite TSCA was approved by a Senate committee in 2012 but was never brought to the floor and thus died when that Congress adjourned.
“Our bill strikes the right balance between strengthening consumer confidence in the safety of chemicals, while also promoting innovation and the growth of an important sector of our economy,” Vitter says. He is the top Republican on the Environment & Public Works Committee, which would play a vital role in moving the bill through the Senate.
The legislation represents a hard-fought compromise, says Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an activist group. “It opens, at last, a bipartisan path forward to fix our badly outmoded system to ensure the safety of chemicals in everyday use.”
The chemical industry also supports the measure. “We are reviewing the legislation, but, on its surface, the bill appears favorable to the concerns of specialty chemical manufacturers,” says William E. Allmond IV, a vice president of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates.
The Lautenberg-Vitter bill is “a sensible, strong and workable bipartisan solution to modernize TSCA,” says Calvin M. Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, an association of chemical manufacturers.
The bill now goes to the Senate Environment & Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics & Environmental Health. The panel’s chairman, Sen. Thomas Udall (D-N.M.), and its top Republican, Sen. Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, are among the cosponsors of the measure, giving it good odds for approval. The House of Representatives, however, has yet to weigh in.