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U.S. Chemical Management: The Toxic Substances Control Act

TSCA Reform: What does it mean?

Congress has finally updated the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), the federal law that regulates chemicals in manufactured products. With the final TSCA reform bill awaiting signature by President Obama, another water contamination problem is cropping up all over the U.S. C-8, a chemical used to manufacture Teflon pans, firefighting foam and even microwave popcorn bags is forcing some communities to shut down their water systems. Will the new TSCA bill help prevent public health crises like these?

Companies stopped using C-8 because of health worries in 2015. What’s unclear is whether a new replacement compound, C-6, may be toxic, too. (For more information on perfluorinated chemicals, go here.)

The hope is that the new TSCA reform legislation will aid in preventing public health crises like Flint, MI and now C-8 water contamination.  The law does provide the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with greater powers to test chemicals, determine their risks and then act to remove them from the market.

But significant hurdles remain for the EPA, including whether Congress will provide adequate funding for the agency to take on its new heightened role.

Implementation efforts will be key in determining if this bill can make significant gains in reducing exposures to hazardous chemicals in homes, workplaces and neighborhoods. Thus, public health advocates will have to watchdog the development of regulations very closely, as I'm sure industry will be weighing in heavily.

Specifics on what the Act does and does not do for health:

The Act does improve on the earlier – and inadequate -- safety standard for chemicals in several ways. It prohibits consideration of costs in evaluating a chemical's risks, and once a chemical is determined to be unsafe in a specific use or product, the EPA is mandated to eliminate that risk. However, before EPA can issue any rule restricting the uses of a harmful chemical, it must conduct a cost-benefit analysis that goes beyond the traditional type – an analysis that could slow the elimination of toxic chemicals from the market considerably and ultimately place economic concerns above health.

Other improvements include protections for susceptible and over-exposed populations and greater authority for EPA to require testing of new chemicals. But funding is limited, so EPA could be stymied by the lack of resources to carry out necessary assessments. The pace of assessments is also a concern, with only a minimum of 10 chemicals to be assessed in the first year and 25 in the first three and a half years.

The reform measure also emphasizes high-throughput testing via computers to assess whether a chemical disrupts hormones or causes cancer. These are technologies that are still evolving and may not be as reliable as more traditional methods.

Other serious defects:

  • For chemicals that are under review, there is unprecedented early preemption of states' ability to enact legislation to protect their residents from hazardous chemical exposures. States are prevented from taking action early in the process of EPA's review of a chemical, which can take up to four years. There is a grace period for states: if they act in the 12-18 months following the EPA's proposal to review the chemical, they are exempted from the early preemption. However, they do have to apply for a waiver, which complicated matters further.
  • The EPA will have a more difficult time stopping imported products that contain harmful chemicals from coming to the U.S.
  • The new law doesn't go far enough in allowing the public the right to know the identity of chemicals we come into contact with in our daily lives, even chemicals that have been studied and found to cause health impacts.

Learn more about toxic chemicals and environmental justice.

Learn more about international efforts to manage toxic chemicals.

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