Chemical Safety Law Advances

(NHI Nanoblog) Democrats in the U.S. Senate are forging ahead with efforts to break a decades-old logjam and reshape the federal law governing toxic chemicals.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday approved an amended version of the Safe Chemicals Act, which would revamp a 1976 law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. The new bill, based on legislation pushed for several years by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, would shift much of the burden of assuring the safety of chemicals from the Environmental Protection Agency to manufacturers.

If the legislation becomes law, it would dramatically increase the EPA’s ability to oversee thousands of chemicals, including some types of nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes. Advocates for tighter controls on these cutting-edge, super-small materials have long lamented that the EPA has few avenues for getting there while TSCA is in its current form.

The committee’s move—spurred by a blockbuster series in the Chicago Tribune on flame retardants—left environmental and health advocates giddy. In a statement released by his office, Lautenberg called the vote a “major milestone.”

“Children and families could be in danger from everyday consumer products, and the U.S. Government is virtually powerless to do anything to make sure that the chemicals used in products are safe. For too long, the chemical industry has deceived the public and the government about the safety of their products,” he said in the statement. “They have ripped a page out of the tobacco industry’s playbook. Today we are saying ‘game over’ – it’s time to protect the public health.”

Republicans on the panel, including ranking member Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, were negative. Their comments echoed those of the American Chemistry Council, a powerful industry lobby, which urged Democrats and Republicans to work together to craft a different bill.

“After a cursory review, we believe the bill is still fundamentally flawed in many critical areas,” the group said in a statement. The ACC added that the bill would enact “an unworkable safety standard” and hamper innovation by adding time to the EPA’s review process.

Almost everyone agrees that TSCA, as it’s known, isn’t working. But plugging the yawning gaps in the law—and giving more information about chemical safety to both regulators and the public—has proven to be a monumental task. Bipartisan negotiations have repeatedly showed promise, then broken down, over the past several years.

But advocates for reform point to support from key senators, including Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, both members of the Senate leadership, as a reason to think passage is possible, even in a contentious election year.

They joined Lautenberg and 23 other senators in sending a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson earlier this month, calling for action on flame retardants and to “urge you to work with Congress to enact consensus reforms” to TSCA. Three Republicans, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, also signed the letter, as did both of Connecticut’s Democratic senators.

However, the path to passage remains uncertain. Even if the bill clears the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, its prospects seem dim in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But the flame retardant story, well-told by the Tribune, is easy to understand—and publicity often prods lawmakers into action.

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