Obama Signs New Chemical Safety Bill into Law. Next Step: Ban Asbestos

On Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016 the United States took an unprecedented, historic move of the modern era, when President Obama signed into the law the Frank R. Lautenburg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (H.R. 2576), or, as it’s more commonly known: the TSCA Reform bill.

"Most Americans would expect that we could come together to fix this law and do a better job of protecting the American people," Obama said at the signing ceremony. "Well, here's the good news: That's exactly why we're here today."

The old bill that the new one “reforms,” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, was 40-years outdated and badly broken; it needed drastic overhaul in order to make federal safety regulations on toxic substances and chemicals effective. The TSCA, in its 40-year stretch, has seen the unregulated entrance of over 85,000 chemicals into U.S. commerce — and the worst part? Many Americans — including the regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — still do not know just how dangerous these chemicals and substances really are.

The TSCA reform bill, then, aims to amend that, and it’s set to go into effect immediately. Proponents of the bill, such as the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), which have been calling for update to the old TSCA for years, want asbestos — a toxic mineral fiber that causes incurable cancer — to be at the top of the new policy’s list.

How Does the New TSCA Bill Upgrade the Old One?

While monumental change is what many ban-asbestos and chemical-safety reform advocates wanted, they will surely settle for this undeniable step forward, which, until now has been incredibly slow. For far too long private funding has let corporate greed influence policy and ultimately block regulatory actions that would invoke meaningful changes toward saving lives and bettering public health.

When it comes to chemical safety, it’s not just the workers on the front lines who are affected — the construction workers, electricians, plant workers, firefighters, first responders, welders, pipefitters, plumbers, etc. — it’s the general public as well. These chemicals, many of which were grandfathered into commerce under the old laws, are in our children’s toys, our cleaning products and supplies, our plastics, our building materials, and nearly everything else in our homes and buildings.

The new law provides the EPA with the broad authority to prioritize, review, and regulate “existing” chemicals in U.S. commerce. According to the EPA, here are some of the other major provisions:

  • Increased public transparency for chemical information, so that people can learn about the chemicals and substances the EPA has reviewed or intends to review
  • Consistent source of funding for EPA to carry out the responsibilities under the new law
  • Industry identification of “active” substances in U.S. commerce
  • Prioritization of active substances into high- and low-priority substances
  • EPA-driven process for reviewing so-called “grandfathered” chemicals, with a minimum, measured, regulatory pace
  • New “risk-based” safety standard evaluated under conditions of use prohibiting consideration of costs or other non-risk factors and requiring consideration of potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations
  • Science-based risk assessments
  • Broad EPA authority to regulate — but requiring the EPA to consider alternatives in bans and phase-outs, such as restrictions and limitations in use
  • Preservation of confidential business information (CBI), though business’s must provide substantiation and sources in many cases and need to renew many chemical-safety claims every 10 years
  • Industry to pay a portion of the cost for EPA chemical-safety reviews

New Law Has Advocates’ Support, Including ADAO

For many Americans, asbestos has been public enemy number 1 for decades. This is especially true for Linda Reinstein, who is the co-founder and president of the ADAO — a nonprofit whose decades-long mission has been to advocate for the ban of asbestos, to hold negligent corporations accountable for their actions, and to educate the public on the diseases that asbestos causes and how they can be prevented.

Part of this education process has been to share with Americans the incredible dangers that asbestos poses to workplace safety and to the public. Because of the weak chemical and substance safety laws that governed the industry for so long, thousands of men and women have lost their lives to asbestos-triggered diseases.

As many are aware, the harmful, disease-causing mineral fiber, which was for decades mined in parts of the U.S. and Canada (and now in Russia, China, and South America), was brought to the U.S. to be used in industry products. Asbestos is a known carcinogen that causes mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

Reinstein attended the June 22nd signing ceremony when the new Chemical Safety bill became law.

"Chemical evaluation and regulation will meet new 21st century standards, which will improve the lives of American families, support American manufacturing and bolster U.S. economic growth," American Chemistry Council President Cal Dooley said in a statement.

"President Obama's signature today launches a new law that will help to improve public health for years to come," said Environmental Defense Fund lead senior scientist Richard Denison in a statement. "While not perfect, the Lautenberg Act fixes the biggest problems with a badly broken law that has left our health at risk. Now the hard part must begin: tending to decades of neglect when it comes to unreviewed and unregulated chemicals."

Others – like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) – remain skeptical, but somewhat optimistic.

"While this legislation falls short of what's needed, we're hopeful that President Obama will give the EPA the direction and resources needed to quickly review, regulate and, if needed, ban the most dangerous chemicals in commerce," said Scott Faber in a statement. "Unless EPA acts to quickly remove chemicals linked to cancer from everyday products, the burden will continue to fall on states and consumers."

The Case for Asbestos to Be at the Top of the Regulatory List

A ban on asbestos — following on the heels of our neighbors to the north, and New Zealand, who also just made a similar regulatory amendment — would make sense, and should be a priority, given the length of time that asbestos has haunted American industry.

Because of the powerful lobbying arms that these corporations have, asbestos has largely evaded any meaningful regulation and is still used — though with some restrictions — today. Allowing the EPA to make more stringent changes to how the toxic mineral fiber is dealt with in American and international commerce, including a potential ban, would serve to signal to the industry at-large that the new policy is strong, and that the old way of doing things is no longer.

The annual U.S. death toll from asbestos, depending on the source, is upwards to 15,000 people, and, given that the so-called third wave of asbestos-related disease is underway now, this death toll is only expected to rise until 2020. This, unless something changes — and our federal regulators now have the power to enact change.

The American Public: Now a Little Bit Safer

Amazingly, the TSCA reform bill was passed in both the House and the Senate through bipartisan support. The American public can take this as a sign that lawmakers, too, in addition to lawyers and advocates who have been calling for change for decades, believe that the old way of regulating, when it came to control of toxic chemicals and substances, was desperately in need of change.

"I know there were times when folks questioned whether or not all the parties involved would be able to reach this agreement," Obama said. "But that's what public service is about: pushing through disagreements, forging compromise – especially when it's hard, and especially when it's about something as important as the health and safety of our kids and our families."

Obama went on to say:

"I'm absolutely confident that we can regulate toxic chemicals in a way that's both good for our families and ultimately good for business and our economy. Here in America, folks should have the confidence to know that the laundry detergent we buy isn't going to make us sick, the mattresses our babies sleep on aren't going to harm them."

To be clear: This is an enormous step forward for the U.S., but there is still a long — long — way to go until our nation is totally safe from lethal asbestos and the greed that has kept it protected for close to a century.

On June 30th, the EPA will host a webinar to educate the public on the new law and to help answer some common questions associated with it. The webinar is free and open to the public, and can be watched here, on the EPA’s website, through Adobe Connect.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 28, 2020