Commentary: Update of Toxic Substances Control Act a worthy step that's long overdue

Original legislation was tragically ineffective in regulating dangerous chemicals

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Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., center, joined by, from left, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Sen. David Vitter, R-La., Bonnie Lautenberg, widow of the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito R-W. Va., talks about bipartisan legislation to improve the federal regulation of chemicals and toxic substances, Thursday, May 19, 2016.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In a groundbreaking report six years ago, a National Cancer Institute panel warned that it was time to pay closer attention to environmental causes of a disease that takes more than a half-million American lives each year.

“[T]he true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” the panelists wrote in their transmittal letter to President Obama in April 2010. “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

The report’s authors said the federal law aimed at controlling such hazards, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, “may be the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of environmental contaminants.” Since the act’s passage, they noted, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had required testing of less than 1 percent of the chemicals in commerce and had banned or restricted only five. The law takes an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach – good for the criminal-justice system, not so good for industrial poisons. Chemical manufacturers have largely avoided disclosure of health and safety data on their products by hiding behind confidentiality provisions.

This makes recent events  all the more remarkable. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation making the first substantive reforms to the 40-year-old act, known as TSCA. The bill was expected to clear the Senate, and the White House has signaled its support.

Among other things, the measure would force the EPA to pick up its laggard pace of chemical reviews, assigning the highest priority to the substances that pose the greatest risks, such as asbestos. The EPA’s inability to ban the mineral despite its role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans has been held up as a prime example of TSCA’s feebleness. The Center for Public Integrity has published dozens of stories exposing flaws in the regulatory system.

The reform legislation, a product of negotiations that began in 2013, has been praised by groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, but is far from perfect. It would prohibit states like California, which have adopted standards stricter than federal ones, from putting restrictions on chemicals while they were under EPA review (though state rules already in place before April 22 of this year would stand). In fact, industry frustration with inconsistencies in those rules helped lawmakers forge the compromise that led to the bill.

The accelerated testing by the EPA would be funded by $25 million a year in fees from the chemical industry. The Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, calls that figure inadequate, saying, “Even the best law will be meaningless if [the] EPA doesn’t have the resources needed to review the hundreds of dangerous chemicals already on the market.”

One public-health advocate who has lived and breathed TSCA reform over the past few years is Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Reinstein, who lives near Los Angeles and has been a fixture on Capitol Hill, lost her husband, Alan, in 2006 to mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer almost always connected to asbestos exposure.

In an email to the Center, Reinstein pointed out that asbestos continues to kill 15,000 Americans each year. “While this bill does not immediately prohibit asbestos imports,” she wrote, “it does represent a landmark step forward.”

The need for a stronger law is beyond dispute. The acute and chronic effects of the paint-stripping solvent methylene chloride, found at any Home Depot or Lowe’s, for example, have been known for decades. A Center analysis last year found that at least 56 accidental deaths had been linked to the chemical in the United States since 1980. On top of that, methylene chloride can cause cancer. The EPA is finally getting around to doing something about it; options for a proposed rule range from clearer warning labels to an outright ban. The agency first pondered such actions 30 years ago.

“People have died, it poses this cancer threat … and everybody knows it’s a bad chemical, and yet nobody does anything,” said Katy Wolf, director of the nonprofit Institute for Research and Technical Assistance in California. “It’s appalling and irresponsible.”

The author of the reform bill, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a written statement that TSCA “has been broken from the very beginning. We're exposed to hundreds of chemicals in our daily lives in countless ways – from flame retardants in the dust from your sofas to formaldehyde in non-iron shirts, and from the non-stick coating on your frying pans to volatile organic compounds given off from laser printers. Some of these chemicals are known to cause cancer or serious health problems, yet there has never been a cop on the beat keeping us safe.”

Now the EPA will be that cop. The quality of its policing remains to be seen.

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