US Congress issues legislation to update ancient toxic chemicals rules by placing more burdens on industry

The US Congress launched a much anticipated effort to update the nation’s 34-year-old law governing new and already existing toxic chemicals yesterday. The reforms are intended to modernise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and would require that chemical manufacturers and processors bear the burden of proving their safety.

In the Senate, Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, and in the House of Representatives reps Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman introduced a parallel proposal.

There are some differences between the Senate and House versions, but overall the proposals would require chemical manufacturers to develop and submit to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a ’minimum data set’ for each chemical that they produce. The EPA would also be given the authority to request additional information needed to determine a chemical’s safety.

The legislative proposals would reform the nation’s chemical management system by initially focusing on prioritising the chemicals of greatest concern, and then subjecting them to formal safety assessments. They also aim to ensure that information supplied  by chemical manufacturers is made accessible to the public.

The TSCA reform efforts have set off alarm bells for the chemical industry. In particular, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) - a major chemical industry association - is concerned about a provision that directs EPA to judge chemical safety based on a  decision-making standard that takes into account aggregate and cumulative exposure. 

’We are concerned about the lack of clarity at this point in terms of how you are defining the risk standard,’ stated ACC’s president, Cal Dooley, during a press conference. Further, he suggested that the proposed standard might be legally and technically impossible to meet. 

’Some chemicals metabolise and are excreted from the body very quickly, so a point-in-time assessment of what might be a theoretical cumulative exposure might in fact have no bearing on the actual health and safety risk to a consumer from multiple exposures through multiple products,’ Dooley stated. 

The legislative proposals are a significant step toward TSCA reform, but it could be some time before a new law is passed. There are only about 60 legislative days left in the current session of Congress. ’It would take the stars aligning perfectly for this legislation to pass this Congress and be signed into law,’ Dooley remarked. 

Details aside, it appears that change is needed. Under the current policy, EPA can only request safety testing after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous. Therefore, the agency has been able to require testing for just 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the US and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances.   

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe