WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a major toxic chemical reform law backed by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., positioning Congress to potentially complete the most significant overhaul of chemical safety laws in the U.S. in 40 years.
The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act is bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and David Vitter (R-LA).
Earlier this year, Merkley joined Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), along with the two sponsors, to negotiate a breakthrough agreement that strengthened protections in the proposed law and helped secure a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The House and Senate will now work to reconcile the legislation with different toxic chemical reform legislation passed by the House earlier this year.
“The passage of this bill is an enormous milestone on the path toward a safer, healthier future for our families,” said Merkley. “It’s totally unacceptable that in the most powerful country on earth, our federal government has been powerless to protect us from incredibly damaging toxic chemicals in everyday products. Today, we’re taking action to change that. I was pleased to work with a bipartisan coalition to pass this bill in the Senate, and I look forward to working with our colleagues in the House to get a bill signed into law.”
The law that currently governs chemical safety in the U.S., the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), was passed in 1976 and has not been updated since. After a 1991 court decision found that TSCA did not give the Environmental Protection Agency the power to ban even asbestos, a known carcinogen, there has been virtually no new regulation of toxic chemicals in the U.S.
Earlier this year, Merkley partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund and Oregon State University to highlight the toxic chemicals that ordinary Americans — even those who try to shop consciously and purchase healthy products — encounter every day.
For one week, the volunteers who participated in the experiment wore a silicon wristband developed by OSU, with the wristband picking up and absorbing the chemicals they came into contact with. At the end of the week, the wristbands were sent in for testing to see which toxic chemicals they had been exposed to. Every wristband showed exposure to toxic chemicals that are capable of causing drastic effects on health.
“We’ve known for decades that America’s chemical safety law offers scant protection against chemicals tied to cancer, Parkinson’s and other serious illnesses, yet Washington had made little progress until now. With today’s Senate vote, Jeff Merkley and his colleagues get us a big step closer to a stronger chemical law that will protect our health from harmful chemicals,” said Dr. Richard Denison, Lead Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“As a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Merkley played a critical role in strengthening and moving this legislation. From strengthening protections against the worst chemicals to expanding the ability of states to act to protect their residents, he has fought to protect public health and the environment.”
The Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act would require the EPA to identify and evaluate at least 25 high-risk chemicals at any given time. It protects the right of states to regulate dangerous chemicals and to co-enforce federal restrictions.
In addition, it provides special protections for those most vulnerable from chemicals — defined in the bill as pregnant women, infants, the elderly and chemical workers. It sets a new fee so chemical companies will bear a larger share of the cost of evaluating and regulating chemicals.