Our opinion: A slightly less toxic system to protect our health
On Wednesday, Pres. Barack Obama signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the nation's chemical safety standards.
"Here in America, folks should have the confidence to know that the laundry detergent we buy isn't going to make us sick, that the mattresses our babies sleep on aren't going to harm them," Obama said at a signing ceremony.
The law has been long overdue. In fact, it took 10 years to write, due to wrangling over how much power the Environmental Protection Agency should have in testing and regulating the more-than-80,000 chemicals used in the United States. It's kind of frightening to learn that only about 7 percent of the roughly 3,000 chemicals that are in high use have been tested for safety.
The bill revises the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating even the most harmful chemicals, such as carcinogenic asbestos.
"The measure is the most significant environmental law in more than a quarter-century," wrote The Hill's Timothy Cama. "It promises to completely revamp the way the federal government oversees thousands of potentially toxic chemicals sold to millions of Americans every day in common products."
The bill, a miracle of legislative sausage making, had the support of major business groups such as the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as safety and health groups like the Environmental Defense Fund. But to get that support, noted Cama, the bill blocked states from taking action to control chemicals, which is bound to be controversial in states that had taken the lead in regulating substances.
The International Business Times' Maria Gallucci, noted that because the sausage had so many chefs, the bill is pretty bland and not as strong as it could be when it comes to protecting our health.
"The EPA will still face substantial hurdles in reviewing the tens of thousands of chemicals currently on its plate," wrote Gallucci. "Some organizations, such as the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups and Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that while the updated law is better than the original, the reforms don't do enough to ensure EPA has sufficient funding or staffing power to review potentially toxic chemicals."
Chemical companies will initially pay $25 million in annual fees to help cover the costs of EPA's reviews of thousands of chemicals, but that funding is not nearly enough to test and regulate all the chemicals in use today.
"Even the best law will be meaningless if EPA doesn't have the resources needed to review the hundreds of dangerous chemicals already on the market," wrote Melanie Benesh for the Environmental Working Group. "Under the best-case scenario, scores of chemicals could be regulated within a decade. Under the worst-case scenario, chemical companies use litigation to limit EPA's authority — which is exactly what happened 25 years ago, when the courts overturned EPA's attempt to ban asbestos."
Richard Denison, writing for the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that despite the bill's flaws, it "held the seeds of many of the reforms we sought even as it had many provisions we did not support." EDF was also concerned that if the bill wasn't approved, the nation would lose another opportunity to reform TSCA.
"We believed that the best way to fix the serious problems with the bill was to help get it moving through the legislative process, work diligently to find solutions to those problems that could still retain bipartisan support, and encourage the engagement of additional lawmakers to make those changes in exchange for their support for the bill."
As Denison noted, now the real work — implementing the law — begins. "It's vital that its implementation lead to improved public health protection as well as a restoration of public confidence, after decades of erosion of that confidence under a badly broken chemical safety system. That means the EPA needs to be given some breathing room, to get a new system up and running, and to get some points on the board early that demonstrate its ability to make decisions and take needed actions."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.