Congress finally modernizes the US toxic chemicals law

Living on Earth
Household chemicals

Many household products contain chemicals that have never been tested for safety.

Congress has passed a long-awaited update of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The new legislation provides, for the first time, uniform federal standards for thousands of everyday chemicals.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the measure into law. When he does, the Environmental Protection Agency will gain more powerful and broader authority to review and regulate new and existing chemicals.

The chemical industry had resisted any changes to the law until fairly recently. But, according to Cheryl Hogue, assistant managing editor of Chemical and Engineering News, the industry began to see an erosion of trust among consumers. This motivated them to get involved with rewriting the law.

“The industry wants consumers to feel good about their products and the chemicals that are in the products that we use every day, whether it's laundry detergents or toys or just solvents that we might use to get grease off of things,” Hogue says.

Most people don't realize that no government agency supervises the safety of the thousands of chemicals that go into making consumer products, Hogue notes. The industry “wants to get a stamp of approval from the federal government to tell consumers a product is safe to use as intended — that these have been looked at and determined that they are OK to use.”

The new legislation differs from the original Toxic Substances Control Act in several significant ways, Hogue says. EPA can now get detailed information about chemicals so it can assess them. This has been very difficult for the agency to do, Hogue says, simply because the old law made it difficult.

The new law also gives EPA clear authority to regulate a chemical if it finds it poses a risk to human health or the environment. “It can ban it, it can restrict it, it can require labeling — that’s something that was in the old law, but in practical terms EPA couldn't use that authority,” Hogue explains. "The fact that EPA will actually be able to take some of these chemicals off the market is huge."

The sheer number of chemicals now on the market remains an obstacle, however. Estimates range as high as 50,000 to 70,000. If those numbers are accurate, it could take up to 35 years to test them all.

Under the new law, the EPA can determine how many of these are actually in use. Hogue says she has heard estimates as low as 8,000. “With this new authority, EPA will be able to ask chemical companies, ‘Hey, are you still selling this stuff?’ [When] they get that information, we’ll have a better number,” Hogue says.

The law was a compromise, however, and the chemical companies also got a lot of what they wanted, Hogue says. Some consumer groups are concerned, for instance, that the new law will handcuff states. Once EPA starts looking at a chemical, states can’t take any action. “They think that states need to be the great backstop for when EPA doesn't take action, just like they have for the last 10 years,” Hogue explains.

But, by and large, environmental groups view the law as significant progress.

The Environmental Defense Fund says: “We are very pleased that we can say that each major section of the final bill offers real improvements, and taken together, the final bill is a major improvement over current law. At long last, EPA will have stronger tools to protect Americans from toxic chemicals that impact the health of millions of Americans.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood