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Federal Chemical Regulation Receives Much Needed Facelift

August 29, 2016
Despite many amazing victories in the realm of environmental health and safety over the past four and a half decades, the United States has never been able to test and regulate potentially harmful chemicals with much success. This is due to the significant shortcomings of one infamous environmental law.

By John Holmes, C’18

Passed in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was meant to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the duty of ensuring that the many chemicals bought and sold in the U.S. did not pose a significant threat to human health or the environment. However, it was a weak and poorly written law that gave EPA little real ability to carry out that task. As a result, many chemical manufacturers have gotten a free pass in the U.S. while their counterparts in places like Europe have had to prove the safety of their products [1]. Thankfully, 40 years after its original passage, TSCA has gotten a long overdue facelift, that will hopefully enable EPA to enact common sense regulation on various dangerous chemicals.

The regulatory framework originally put in place by TSCA never had a chance. For starters, it made a total of 62,000 chemicals that had been on the market before 1976 nearly impossible to regulate. In order to do so, EPA had to prove that a chemical posed an “unreasonable risk.” In 40 years, due to insufficient resources and the lengthy evaluation process, the Agency was only able to study a few hundred chemicals and successfully ban a total of five [2]. EPA was not even able to place a ban on asbestos, a well-known carcinogen, after a judge ruled that the risk posed by the chemical did not justify the monetary cost of regulating it [2]. For those chemicals that entered the market after TSCA was passed, EPA only had a 90-day window to prove unreasonable risk, after which they could not be regulated [2]. One man who worked as a lobbyist for the chemical industry during the 1970s has said that TSCA “contains such obscure and inconsistent phrases that its supporters were doomed to frustration.” He continues, saying that the law has created “a mere façade of effective environmental action” [1]. It is no secret that TSCA doesn’t work and never has, but the recent reform bill may provide the provisions necessary to change that.

President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act in late June of this year. The law was a bipartisan effort that passed both houses of Congress with relative ease. Gina McCarthy, Administrator of EPA, points to three main provisions of the law that will dramatically improve the chemical regulation process. First, EPA is now mandated to test chemicals regardless of how long they have been on the market. The law even sets forth clear deadlines and guidelines on how many chemicals should be tested and by when [3]. Second, it allows the Agency to regulate based solely on the grounds of a chemical’s threat to public health and the environment, without making sacrifices in those fields due to potential costs [3]. This provision directly addresses the issue of EPA’s failed asbestos ban. Finally, by allowing EPA to collect funds from chemical manufacturers as well as Congress, the new law creates a reliable and significant source of monetary resources that the Agency previously lacked when trying to regulate chemicals [3]. These common sense reforms each directly address a major issue within TSCA’s original text that has been begging for a fix for decades.

In many ways, the passage of this law is nothing short of a miracle. The kind of bipartisan cooperation that made it possible is hard to come by, especially on issues of environmental protection. One poll by the Pew Research Center found that Americans are split more squarely along party lines on environmental issues than almost any other public priority [4]. Another poll also suggests that regardless of political affiliation, environmental issues are becoming less of a priority to the American public [5]. Additionally, this is the first time any environmental statute has been significantly amended in 20 years [3]. Despite all these discouraging factors, the reform prevailed. The new and improved TSCA will allow EPA to make major advancements in chemical regulation, which will naturally result in improved quality in the realms of environmental and public health.

References

  [1] James T. O’Reilly. “Torture by TSCA: Retrospectives of a Failed Statute,” Natural Resources & Environment, 25, 1, Summer 2010.

 

  [2] Puneet Kollipara. “The bizarre way the U.S. regulates chemicals – letting them on the market first, then maybe studying them,” Washington Post. March 19, 2015.

 

  [3] Gina McCarthy. “TSCA Reform: A Bipartisan Milestone to Protect Our Health from Dangerous Chemicals,” EPA Connect. United States Environmental Protection Agency. June 22, 2016. https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2016/06/tsca-reform-a-bipartisan-milestone-to-protect-our-health-from-dangerous-chemicals/

 

  [4] “How Americans view the top energy and environmental issues,” Pew Research Center. January 15, 2015.

 

  [5] Jeffrey M. Jones. “In U.S., Concern About Environmental Threat Eases,” Gallup. March 25, 2015.

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