Sweeping overhaul of nation’s chemical-safety laws clears final legislative hurdle

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday evening that will overhaul the way the federal government regulates every chemical sold on the market in the United States. The bipartisan accord represents the most sweeping environmental measure to pass Congress in a quarter-century.

The bill, which drew support from the chemical industry, trial lawyers and many public health and environmental groups, updates a 40-year-old law long criticized as ineffective.

In reauthorizing the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act on a voice vote, lawmakers are providing chemical manufacturers with greater certainty while giving the Environmental Protection Agency the ability to obtain more information about a chemical before approving its use. And because the laws involved regulate thousands of chemicals used in products including furniture, sippy cups and detergents, the measure will affect Americans’ everyday lives in ways large and small.

In an interview before the vote, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said many Americans were largely unaware of the risks posed by toxic chemicals, whether they are flame retardants in rugs and drapes or materials in clothing.

“When people learn their little baby is crawling on the floor with their nose an inch from the rug, and they are inhaling toxic-laden dust right from birth, they’re shocked,” he said. “We finally found a way to bring people together to change that.”

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who co-authored the bill with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), said the measure could spur economic innovation because more functional oversight would encourage chemical manufacturers to bring new products to market.

“I’m so very glad to have passed a law that strengthens our country’s international competitiveness, provides desperately needed regulatory certainty for industry and mandates that the federal government use better science and provide more transparency,” he said in a statement.

Currently, the EPA must prove that a chemical poses a potential risk before it can demand data or require testing, and that substance can automatically enter the marketplace after 90 days. As a result, the agency has required testing for 200 out of thousands of chemicals that have entered the market, and it has issued regulations to control only five of them.

More than 8,000 chemicals are produced in the United States at an annual rate of more than 25,000 pounds each, according to the agency

The overhaul will allow the EPA to order companies to test their new products. The measure will also create a more uniform regulatory system for chemical manufacturers, although states will still have the right to seek a federal waiver to impose their rules on a given chemical. It will also severely limit the testing of chemicals on animals.

“We lack information on many chemicals and how they affect a diverse human population, because we rely too heavily on slow, unreliable, and expensive animal tests,” Kristie Sullivan, a toxicity expert at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said in a statement. The legislation “will ensure strong protection of human health and the environment by modernizing toxicity test methods, allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to collect better information more quickly.”

Manufacturers have lobbied for updated legislation because several states have begun to impose their own curbs on toxic chemicals out of concern that the federal government was not doing enough.

“The regulations on these chemicals will be clearer and more straightforward, meaning time and resources that would have been spent trying to navigate outdated, confusing rules can now be spent on driving innovation and creating jobs,” said Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Some environmental groups have criticized the bill as too weak. U.S. Public Interest Research Group Toxics Campaign Director Carli Jensen said it “preempts state action to regulate a chemical while the EPA is merely assessing its safety – a years-long process that will leave us all at risk.”

The measure, which President Obama is poised to sign into law, grew out of an effort that the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) launched with Vitter and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) in 2012. The bill passed the House by an overwhelming margin late last month, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) put a hold on it that delayed its passage.

“This is a historic day and a fitting way to honor Frank Lautenberg’s years of work for a healthier and safer environment for our children and grandchildren,” Vitter said.