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Congress Poised To Finalize New Chemical Safety Law

Legislation: Lawmakers’ negotiations expected to culminate in early 2016

by Britt E. Erickson
December 21, 2015

Credit: Shutterstock
Photograph shows U.S. Capitol.
Credit: Shutterstock

After the U.S. Senate last week passed S. 697 to modernize the federal law that controls commercial chemicals, Congress launched negotiations to resolve differences between that bill and a similar measure approved by the House of Representatives.

The House cleared its slimmer version of the legislation (H.R. 2576) to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in June.

Lawmakers hope to have a bill ready for a vote by both chambers early in 2016. But getting S. 697 to the Senate floor on Dec. 17 was chock-full of obstacles, and a few bumps remain before it is ready for the president’s signature. The legislation has widespread support from the chemical industry and some environmental and public health organizations, but other activist groups oppose it.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, hailed the Senate vote. S. 697 “will protect human health and the environment, build confidence in the U.S. chemical regulatory system, and address the commercial and competitive needs of the U.S. chemical industry and the national economy,” says Cal Dooley, ACC’s president and CEO.

Some scientists and scientific organizations are also welcoming the legislation, particularly a provision that aims to boost research and development in sustainable chemistry. The American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, “supports a sustainable vision for chemistry, and the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemicals Safety Act”—the official name of S. 697—“is an important step in that direction,” says Glenn S. Ruskin, director of the ACS Office of Public Affairs.

Lautenberg was a Democratic senator from New Jersey who championed chemical safety legislation for decades. He was a pivotal in the legislative process that led to this year’s action on TSCA reform, introducing a breakthrough bipartisan bill just weeks before death in 2013.

The newly passed Senate legislation represents several years of negotiations, and many environmental groups say it is vastly improved compared to previous versions. Nonetheless, it “still has major problems,” says Andy Igrejas, Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of environmental and public health groups dedicated to TSCA reform. “For example, it weakens EPA’s ability to intercept imported products, like most of the toys under your Christmas tree, when they contain a known toxic chemical.”

S. 697 would also block states from taking action on a chemical because of toxicity concerns while the federal Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the substance, Igrejas points out. Concerns about the legislation overriding state chemical laws were raised by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), but most of those provisions were modified earlier this year.

Even so, Boxer still has a few remaining concerns and nearly prevented the bill from getting to the Senate floor for a vote last week. Other senators assured her that she would be a part of the negotiations with House lawmakers to hammer out common legislative language on TSCA reform, so she agreed to allow the chamber’s vote to proceed.

“The voices of those who have been most deeply affected, including nurses, breast cancer survivors, asbestos victims, and children, will be heard” as Senate and House lawmakers negotiate on the final bill, Boxer said.


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