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The new face of TSCA

Posted by Shilpa Gogna on August 16, 2010

Following Senator Lautenberg’s introduction of the Safe Chemicals Act in April, House Representatives Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act 2010, H.R. 5820, a bill that updates the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Congress began our pursuit to protect the public from toxic chemicals by passing TSCA  in 1976. However, following TSCA’s initial introduction, limited successes have been achieved to safeguard the public from many dangerous chemicals that were already registered and on the market. Since its passage, less than 200 of the over 80,000 registered chemicals have been evaluated for safety while only five have been banned.  Such limited safety screening practically ensures that bad actor chemicals are escaping detection, entering consumer products, and subsequently contaminating our air, food, water and, ultimately, our bodies.  The key limitation to TSCA is its presumption of innocence for chemicals already registered.  Further, new chemicals must provide only limited safety information, and some ingredient and safety information can be withheld from the public under confidential business information clauses. Finally, the government must provide proof of harm before it is able to regulate, issue bans, or request further testing. These weaknesses have essentially crippled the EPA to fulfill its mission to ensure the American public safe chemical management.

The proposed bills would overhaul the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, a law which has done little to regulate chemicals in consumer products, including those linked to cancer and other health problems. The House legislation would greatly increase public health protections from toxic chemicals.

Some aspects of the bill include:

  • Requiring the chemical industry to demonstrate that a chemical is safe, as opposed to relying on the EPA to prove a chemical is unsafe. 
  • Requiring chemicals to meet a health standard before they are allowed on the market.
  • Requiring chemical manufacturers to provide basic health and safety information for all chemicals, as a condition for being allowed to remain on the market.
  • Requiring the EPA to rely on the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations to incorporate the latest science in chemical safety determinations.
  • Requiring the EPA to identify and restrict the most toxic chemicals that build up in our food chain and in our bodies, such as brominated flame retardants.
  • Requiring that populations most vulnerable to toxic chemicals, including pregnant women, infants and children, and those living in environmental 'hot spots', to have extra protections from toxic chemicals.

The Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection recently held a hearing discussing the proposed legislation. Steven Owens, Administrator at the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, opened his discussion by admitting that EPA needs greater cooperation from the chemical industry. Owens stated that “implementation of the law should be adequately and consistently funded, in order to meet the goal of assuring the safety of chemicals, and to maintain public confidence that EPA is meeting that goal. To that end, manufacturers of chemicals should support the costs of Agency implementation, including the review of information provided by manufacturers."

It is well beyond time for measures to be taken to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, first signed into law by President Ford. Now, under the Obama administration, we are taking bigger steps to make our country safer from toxins and chemicals. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 grandfathered over 60,000 chemicals into commerce without review. After attending this hearing, I am more confident about what our next steps will be, and look forward to health-protective modernization of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Shilpa Gogna is the Environmental Health and Toxics Intern at Physicians for Social Responsibility in Washington, D.C. She is currently pursuing her medical degree while maintaining her interest in health advocacy and policy.

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