After Multi-Year Odyssey Senate Passes TSCA Reform by Unanimous Consent

Last night, legislation that would overhaul the U.S.’s outdated and ineffective toxic chemicals law was approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate. A Similar bill passed through the House in June.

The Toxic Substance and Chemicals Act, or TSCA, was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, and had been long overdue for an upgrade. The bill was considered by politicians on both sides of the aisle to be ineffective at regulating the country’s use of chemicals as the primary chemical statute. The reform legislation passed yesterday had unanimous bipartisan support and the overhaul has been lauded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the American Cleaning Institute (ACI), and the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD), among many others.

What’s the big takeaway? The new law would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to – for the first time – assess the safety-level of chemicals in commerce and certify that they are safe to use by the public.

While TSCA reform deserves some lauding – it does, after all, replace an old and ineffective bill – many advocacy groups are still asking if the new bill will do enough. The bill, represented by Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and David Vitter (R-LA), has been referred to by Udall as a “landmark chemical safety reform bill that will overhaul a broken TSCA,” but given the controversy that has mired the bill for years, the validity of Udall’s claim remains to be seen.



The Old TSCA: An Exercise in Absolute Failure

Whether or not the new bill will make a lasting impact in the health and safety of the American public remains to be seen. Regardless, proponents of TSCA reform can agree on 1 overarching item: the old TSCA was useless. Due to the extent of TSCA’s failure, Americans have been dying for decades from toxic chemical exposure and exposure to harmful carcinogens such as asbestos.

Congress had done little in the last 4 decades to reform the country’s broken chemical law. While Congress sat idle on this problem, more than 32 million people, or 20% of the entire U.S. workforce, worked at jobs that exposed them to toxic substances. Further, more than 40,000 people a year die prematurely from toxic chemicals. Workplace chemical exposures became the 8th greatest cause of death in the United States, killing more people than all highway accidents combined. In addition to all of this needless death, Dr. David Bellinger, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, estimated that Americans have lost a collective 41 million IQ points from having been exposed to toxic chemicals.

A recap of these frightening numbers:

  • 40,000 deaths per year from toxic chemical exposure
  • 32 million American workers are exposed to toxic substances in their workplace
  • American public has lost a collective 41 million IQ points
  • Toxic Chemical exposure is the 8th leading cause of death in the U.S.

So, while the concerned public may have some questions about the effectiveness of this new bill, it’s safe to say that any upgrade to the old legislation is a step in the right direction.

Heed Caution: Versions of the New Law Were Written by the Juggernauts of Big Chemical

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S.697), known informally as the “Udall-Vitter Act,” is the bill that passed yesterday. It’s supported by such chemical-industry giants as 3M, DuPont, Koch Industries, and Dow Chemical Co. According to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), earlier versions of the bill were also, in part, written by the American Chemical Council (ACC), a 140-year-old lobbying giant with over $100 Million in their annual spending budget.

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA) had fought the recently-passed bill with their own version of the bill for years. The Boxer-Markey version of TSCA reform went further to hold chemical corporations accountable and made better, more comprehensive improvements to TSCA, including paving the way for the EPA to ban asbestos.

Boxer had made public her problems with the original Udall-Vitter Act, saying, ““Call me old-fashioned, but a bill to protect the public from harmful chemicals shouldn’t be written by the chemical industry lobbyists.” Drafts of the bill were found to have digital signatures on them, indicating that the chemical industry’s largest trade association ACC was one of the authors.

Since that information was brought to public attention, the Udall-Vitter Act has been revised with the aid of Senators Boxer and Markey, and the newest version of the bill includes some of the original measures of their own, more-comprehensive bill. After a number of amendments were made, Senator Boxer announced her support of the updated Udall-Vitter bill for 2 prominent reasons:

“First, the bill has been vastly improved over the original bill, which in my opinion would have been harmful to our families, because it overrode our state laws and set up an ineffective and nonexistent way to regulate most toxic pollutants. Secondly, I have been assured that as the House and Senate bills are merged into one, the voices of those who have been most deeply affected, including nurses, breast cancer survivors, asbestos victims, and children, will be heard."

Boxer also reported that she will “stay intimately involved as the bill moves forward… I look forward to the work ahead, and I am optimistic that we can reach a fair and just conclusion.”

Some Questions Still Remain

Andy Igrejas, The Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a 450-member coalition that is dedicated to TSCA reform, shared a statement earlier this morning in response to the new legislation:

“Though improved, the legislation still has major problems. For example, it weakens EPA’s ability to intercept imported products, like most of the toys under your Christmas tree, when they contain a known toxic chemical. If reform is going to be credible, tricky, sneaky provisions like this will have to be removed. Luckily, it is not too late. When Congress reconciles the House and Senate versions, they should focus on the fundamentals of reform and simply empower and direct EPA to identify and restrict toxic chemicals.”

As Igrejas alludes to, the next step is to reconcile the differences between the House version of the bill and its counterpart in the Senate. Once the 2 bills have been reconciled, the bill’s provisions should go into effect in 2016. According to many in the environmental and public health communities, the consensus is that the House version of the bill is superior – as it seems to be more comprehensive.

While today’s replacement bill of the old TSCA certainly marks a victory, the fight for better chemical reform is not over yet. If many people, including Senators Boxer and Markey were hoping for strides in the right direction, today they’ll all settle for one, small step forward.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 29, 2020