Bipartisan bill to revamp the US Toxic Substances Control Act is backed by the chemical industry and even a major environmental group

The venerable law that governs the US’s chemicals policy appears poised to receive a revamp. The law, which is almost 40 years old, is one that government, industry and environmental groups agree hasn’t worked and needs updating. A bill to tackle this problem that industry and even some environmental groups are backing is proceeding apace in the Senate, but a competing proposal just introduced has threatened to throw a spanner in the works.

There is general agreement that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not effectively policed chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), yet a consensus on how to fix chemicals regulation remains elusive. The agency has tested only about 200 of the roughly 84,000 chemicals in the TSCA’s inventory since its enactment in 1976. In that time, the EPA has used the TSCA to restrict production or use of just five chemicals.

But after nearly two years of deliberations and negotiations, punctuated by political bickering that stalled a somewhat promising effort to modernise the TSCA last year, new bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate by Republican David Vitter and Democrat Tom Udall on 10 March.

Currently, the EPA has no mandate to review the safety of existing chemicals or impose restrictions. By contrast, the new bill includes numerous deadlines for EPA action in areas like developing policy and guidance, completing chemical prioritisation decisions, as well as chemical safety assessments. The measure also authorises the EPA to obtain new information on chemical substances at all stages of safety evaluation and requires safety reviews for new and existing chemicals.

Screws would tighten

The legislation demands that new chemicals be tested for safety before they enter the market, and it also mandates that chemical safety decisions are solely based on the risks to public health and the environment and not on cost. The TSCA currently has a clause that requires the EPA to take into account how much it would cost to control the use of a chemical, which has been blamed for the failure to ban asbestos.

Furthermore, the measure explicitly requires the protection of populations particularly vulnerable to chemical exposure, and sets new limits on firms’ abilities to claim safety data as ‘confidential business information’. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) says that confidentiality claims have led to data on around 17,000 chemicals remaining hidden from the public.

The Udall–Vitter bill has attracted bipartisan support meaning that its passage through the Senate should be relatively simple. However, the bill may not attract enough votes to prevent the president from vetoing the bill should he decide to oppose it. The Obama administration has not made it position on the bill clear yet.

Duelling bills

This legislation has been hailed by the chemical industry and the EDF as a significant improvement, but Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer called it ‘worse than current law’. Two days after the bill’s introduction, Boxer and fellow Democrat Senator Ed Markey offered competing TSCA reform legislation that they said ensures faster chemical safety reviews and provides a stronger standard to judge chemicals’ safety.

The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates’ (SOCMA) Dan Newton calls the Boxer–Markey legislation a ‘distraction’. Critics of the newest legislation argue that the Boxer–Markey measure will have minimal impact because it is a partisan offering. However, Senator Bernard Sanders, who is an Independent, is also co-sponsoring the Boxer–Markey bill.

Newton anticipates that the Udall–Vitter bill will pass in the Senate this year, and that a companion bill will be introduced in the House in April. He adds that, as the bill has the support of a number of Democrats, it is less likely that President Obama will veto it.

Eyes on the prize

‘Keep your eye on the prize,’ says Jim Aidala, who served as assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances under President Clinton. ‘Anything that makes it easier to get chemical test data in is really a good thing,’ he tells Chemistry World.

Aidala says the Udall–Vitter bill includes significant concessions by the chemical industry, yet the standoff continues. Industry says that it can’t back the Boxer–Markey bill, while some environmental groups are enthusiastic, seeing it as a route to fast track reviews of some chemicals.

Although Udall and Vitter say they spent nearly two years working with industry and environmental advocates to arrive at a legislative compromise, Boxer and several environmental groups claim that it was generated by the chemical industry.

Indeed, Udall – who is widely considered an environmental champion – has been accused of selling out to the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) was among his top 20 industry donors last year, according to The trade group also ran a television ad in New Mexico endorsing Udall and appears to have donated $13,500 (£9000) to his campaign in the last election.

Richard Denison, the EDF’s lead senior scientist, tells Chemistry World that EDF continues to support the Udall–Vitter proposal because it ‘has the bipartisan support to move forward’. Yet, it is evident that the debate about how to reform TSCA continues to rage on, and won’t likely end anytime soon.