To say the least: It’s been a while since Congress has made any meaningful headway on its promise to overhaul the outdated Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. In fact, it’s been a whole 6+ months. But, alas, such is what the U.S. public has come to expect from the famously-dubbed “do-nothing” Congress of the last 7 years; bills move – if they move at all – at a sloth’s pace, and it takes even longer for a freshly-passed bill to show its impact on society.
An older, Senate-version of The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S.697), known informally as the “Udall-Vitter Act,” was passed in December of 2015. Its House version had passed earlier, in June 2015, and lawmakers have spent the last 6 months rectifying differences between the 2 versions of the bill.
How The New Bill Could Change America’s Toxic Landscape
Just what is the TSCA? Well, for starters, it’s how hazardous, toxic substances and chemicals such as formaldehyde, asbestos, benzene, and vinyl chloride are governed in the U.S. And for another? It’s appallingly outdated – by over 40 years. Imagine that: The same bill that governed and regulated the U.S.’s toxic substances in 1976 is the very same bill that we have in place today, some 4 decades later.
In that same gap of time, technological advances have been exponential; new wars have started and other wars have ended; and a large portion of the world has gotten serious about issues that threaten our planet, like climate change. With the globe’s focus on better technologies that will help people to live environmentally cleaner, it seems counterintuitive that the laws governing the toxic substances and chemicals that make up and build our newfangled technological devices and household products have remained stagnant. With all of our new technology and advances in medicine and such – the U.S.’s fundamental chemical bill has more or less remained the same, allowing for the ban or restriction of only a small handful of chemicals.
Meanwhile, in that 40-year space, some 85,000 new chemicals have entered into U.S. commerce, via commercial and industrial use, and a grand total of 5 have been added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s list of restricted or banned chemicals.
Big Business’s 40-Year Stranglehold on Legislators
It’s important to ask the following question: If, in a 40-year span, tens of thousands of “new” chemicals have entered into the U.S., how is it that they have gone almost entirely unregulated? But the answer to that question, of course, involves asking yet another couple of questions: How do these chemicals and substances get here? And, who is using them?
For years, the great, big [and well-funded] lobbying armies of the chemical industry have spent billions to keep the laws right where they are: stagnant and ineffectual. And, incredibly, it’s worked. Companies in this sector – Dow Chemical, Koch Industries, 3M, DuPont, Georgia-Pacific, and General Electric, to name a few – don’t just want these chemicals to go overlooked by the U.S. government. They rely on it. And the outdated TSCA law has enabled the trend.
For an example, one need not look further than asbestos – a lethal mineral fiber and known human carcinogen – that is mined in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and South America and imported into the U.S. to the tune of 1,000 metric tons a year. U.S. regulators know that no exposure level to asbestos is safe and that the mineral has killed for decades; in fact, the cancer it causes, mesothelioma, kills around 3,200 Americans a year. And the other diseases it causes – asbestosis (a painful scarring of one’s lungs) and lung cancer (which needs no introduction) – brings that asbestos-death toll to over 11,000 annually. Some estimates say it even kills upwards to 12,000-15,000 Americans each year.
With a global death toll from asbestos at 120,000 people per year, 55 countries around the world have outright banned its use; and yet it is not banned for industrial use here in the U.S. So companies operating on U.S. soil continue to use it – why? Because it’s abundant, it’s cheap, and executives do not want to run the risk of using a more-expensive, but arguably safer, alternative that may wind up reducing their bottom line.
The Scary Statistics
When it comes to hazardous chemicals and substances, it’s not just asbestos that kills – not by a longshot. Due to the extent of TSCA’s failure, Americans have been dying for decades from toxic-chemical exposure and exposure to harmful carcinogens by the tens of thousands.
While Big Business has managed to place a stranglehold on federal regulators, forcing Congress to remain idle, it’s the common unsuspecting citizens who bear the repercussions. Thirty-two (32) million Americans – or a whopping 20 percent of the U.S. workforce – work at jobs that exposed them to harmful, toxic substances and chemicals. These same hazards have caused the premature deaths of over 40,000 Americans per year, making chemical exposure the 8th biggest killer in the U.S. This means that chemical exposure kills more than car crashes.
But death isn’t the only problem. Dr. David Bellinger, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, estimated, in an interview with The Atlantic, that Americans have lost a collective total of 41 million IQ points from exposure to hazardous substances and chemicals.
Lack of regulation in this sector is killing brains and killing Americans.
Enter: The TSCA Reform Bill
How will this bill save lives? Right now, 85,000 chemicals go unregulated by the EPA. In fact, a great deal of these chemicals aren’t even registered for use. The proposed legislation, then, which passed through the House on Tuesday, will amend the outdated TSCA by making the EPA review chemicals to determine whether or not they pose a threat to human health or to the environment.
Federal regulators would also be required to give priority to the riskiest chemicals, evaluate, at a minimum, 20 substances at a time, and to complete their evaluations in less than 7 years.
These federal reviews would be required to pay special attention to how certain substances and chemicals would harm vulnerable populations, like industrial workers, poor people, children, the elderly, and pregnant women.
The new law, if passed later this week by the Senate, will also require the EPA to prioritize its regulation of known carcinogens, such as asbestos.
Still, many advocacy groups and other legislators are unhappy with the proposed bill, saying that it won’t go far enough. An earlier bill, proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was more comprehensive, and called for the outright ban of asbestos, along with many other stiffer regulations and impositions on Big Chemical. Still, if nothing else – while this legislation, if passed, will not be as sweeping as many had hoped – it will be a start. And a crucial and much-needed one at that.
Bill Moves to Senate for One of the Most Important Votes of Our Time
So, then. The TSCA reform bill shifts to the Senate floor for a vote [hopefully] later this week. And its implications are enormous. Signing the legislation into law could potentially save tens of thousands of Americans from permanent brain damage, irreversible mutations, lethal cancers such as mesothelioma, and death.
U.S. senators have a choice to change the way we look at, deal with, and think about hazardous substances and chemicals. And 320 million American lives are riding on that choice; so let us hope our elected officials make the right one.