Finally, At Least Some Chemicals Will Be Tested and Regulated in the US

Update June 22: President Obama signed this bill today.

While many Americans assume any chemical allowed on the market has been tested for safety, the fact is 80,000 of them have not.

And they still won’t be – not in your lifetime anyway – even though the House and Senate passed a long overdue overhaul of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Stain-resistant carpeting, teflon pans, building products, clothing and just about every non-organic product people buy contains chemicals of varying toxicities. 10 trillion of pounds of chemicals are produced every year in the US, according to Environmental Working Group.


The bill passed easily in the Senate by voice vote and by 403-12 in the House. President Obama will soon sign it.

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) worked with the American Chemistry Council to develop language acceptable to the industry and the regulation-averse Republican Congress.

So, what did he get?

Not much, even though it’s a major improvement from the very weak, original bill, which assumed any chemical already on the market was safe and didn’t need to be tested.

That incorrect assumption is the reason we have 80,000 chemicals on the market that haven’t been tested for safety to humans. We now have a very deep hole to get out of and it would take many years for even the most aggressive and well-funded administration.

On the positive side, the handcuffs are removed from EPA, which finally has the authority to test and regulate chemicals already on the market – and require testing before any new chemical enters it.

But the pace of testing is so slow it’s laughable. EPA is confiined to testing about 20 chemicals simultaneously and can take as long as seven years per chemical. And EPA’s decisions can pre-empt stronger state rules, which have always taken the lead in regulating chemicals.

Another version of the bill, pushed by the environmental community, required EPA to test over 100 chemicals a year, while allowing states to enact stronger regulations.

“In particular, the bill does not provide EPA with the resources or clear legal authority to quickly review and, if needed, ban dangerous chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health problems,” says Scott Faber of Environmental Working Group, which analyzes personal care and food products for toxicity.

A “pause” provision blocks a state’s right to ban a chemical that under EPA review, even if action is years away. States’ often enact laws much stronger than at the federal level, and when they require a company to modify or stop selling chemicals, that often ripples across the US.

And if EPA rules no action is required for a chemical, that preempts state laws which may contradict the finding.

What will happen to California’s progressive Green Chemistry law?  Instead of trying to determine how toxic specific chemicals are, it asks why they are necessary at all.

Other elements of the law:

  • EPA can evaluate chemicals purely on health and safety, without considering cost to business.
  • Increases transparency – companies can’t claim ingredients are confidential, making testing impossible.
  • No more testing on animals where scientifically valid alternatives exist.

The bill is far from perfect, says Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), but it’s a good step toward getting dangerous chemicals like lead, mercury and asbestos out of consumer products, out of commerce, and out of the environment.”

Most Important Law Since Clean Air Act?

This isn’t just any bill. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemicals for the 21st Century Act, is considered the only major environmental law to pass Congress since the Clean Air Act of 1990.

It is named after the late Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) for his many years of struggling to improve the 1976 law.


Besides not allowing EPA to test chemicals already on the market, the 1976 law set the bar for regulating a chemical so high that even asbestos is still legally produced. Only five chemicals have been regulated, such as formaldehyde, in 40 years and less than 300 have been tested.

Because of this, activists and states got involved, pressuring companies to take lots of chemicals off the market. Industry finally decided to stop fighting reform, and thus began a 3-year negotation process which produced the final bill.

As usual, Republicans are all for state rights until it comes to their preferences. Democrats fought hard against those provisions. As is often the case, industry won the argument that it would be too great a burden to comply with a patchwork of state laws.

It’s especially interesting because today, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a proposal that turns most federal regulations over to the states: environment, labor and rules for financial institutions implemented after the 2008 crash.

Here’s a fact sheet on the bill:

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