toxic substance

TSCA Reform: A Bipartisan Milestone to Protect Our Health from Dangerous Chemicals


By Gina McCarthy

President Obama just signed a bipartisan bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the first major update to an environmental statute in 20 years. That’s great news for the environment and for the health of all Americans.

TSCA was first passed in 1976 to help keep dangerous chemicals off the market and avoid making people sick. Back then, health experts already knew that certain chemicals could cause very serious health impacts, including cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm.

While the intent of the original TSCA law was spot-on, it fell far short of giving EPA the authority we needed to get the job done.

It became clear that without major changes to the law, EPA couldn’t take the actions necessary to protect people from toxic chemicals. Diverse stakeholders, including industry, retailers, and public health and environmental experts, recognized these deficiencies and began to demand major reforms to the law.

Today, in a culmination of years of effort from both sides of the aisle, President Obama signed a bill that achieves those reforms.

The updated law gives EPA the authorities we need to protect American families from the health effects of dangerous chemicals. I welcome this bipartisan bill as a major step forward to protect Americans’ health. And at EPA, we’re excited to get to work putting it into action.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (H.R. 2576) was made possible by years of hard work by both Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate, as well as EPA staff who have provided significant technical assistance. I applaud everyone who stepped up and made it happen. It’s historic, and it’ll make Americans’ lives better.

TSCA was intended to be one of our nation’s foundational environmental laws. In terms of its potential for positive impact, it should have ranked right alongside the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, which, since the 70’s, have dramatically improved water quality and helped clean up 70 percent of our nation’s air pollution. But it hasn’t.

Forty years after TSCA was enacted, there are still tens of thousands of chemicals on the market that have never been evaluated for safety, because TSCA didn’t require it. And the original law set analytical requirements that were nearly impossible to meet, leaving EPA’s hands tied – even when the science demanded action on certain chemicals.

The dangers of inaction were never more stark than in the case of asbestos, a chemical known to cause cancer through decades of research.

During the first Bush Administration, EPA tried to ban asbestos under TSCA, but the rule was overturned in court. In the law’s 40-year history, only a handful of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market when the law passed have ever been reviewed for health impacts, and only 5 have ever been banned.

Because EPA was not empowered to act on dangerous chemicals, American families were left vulnerable to serious health impacts. At the same time, some states tried to fill the gap to protect their citizens’ health—but state-by-state rules are no substitute for a strong national program that protects all Americans. Chemical manufacturers, consumer retailers, and others in industry agreed: reform was sorely needed.

As with any major policy reform, this one includes compromises. But the new bipartisan bill is a win for the American people—because it’s a victory for EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment.

Here are a few highlights:

  • The new law requires EPA to evaluate existing chemicals, with clear and enforceable deadlines. Under the old law, the tens of thousands of chemicals already in existence in 1976 were considered in compliance, without any requirement or schedule for EPA to review them for safety. EPA is now required to systematically prioritize and evaluate chemicals on a specific and enforceable schedule. Within a few years, EPA’s chemicals program will have to assess at least 20 chemicals at a time, beginning another chemical review as soon as one is completed.
  • Under the new law, EPA will evaluate chemicals purely on the basis of the health risks they pose. The old law was so burdensome that it prevented EPA from taking action to protect public health and the environment–even when a chemical posed a known health threat. Now, EPA will have evaluate a chemical’s safety purely based on the health risks it poses—including to vulnerable groups like children and the elderly, and to workers who use chemicals daily as part of their jobs—and then take steps to eliminate any unreasonable risks we find.
  • The new law provides a consistent source of funding for EPA to carry out its new responsibilities. EPA will now be able to collect up to $25 million a year in user fees from chemical manufacturers and processers, supplemented by Congressional budgeting, to pay for these improvements.

Bottom line: this law is a huge win for public health, and EPA is eager to get to work.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Consumer Product Companies Leading the Way to Greener Products

Getting a tour of Earth Friendly Products in Southern California.

Getting a tour of Earth Friendly Products in Southern California.

 

During some recent travel, I spent time with several consumer product companies and retailers who are stepping up as  safer product leaders and innovators, advancing industry beyond the safety “floor” set by the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

In Southern California, I met with Earth Friendly Products. All their products are manufactured in the U.S. and 90% have earned the Design for the Environment (DfE) label.

I also took part in the Safer Consumer Product Summit in California followed by a visit to the Consumer Specialty Product Association (CSPA) meeting in Chicago.Then, outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I met with BerkleyGreen (Berkley Packaging Company Inc.), a family- and woman-owned DfE partner with 29 DfE-labeled products.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Radon – Why Do We Ignore It?

By Shelly Rosenblum

Psychology is fascinating, especially when you consider how we use it on ourselves – or against ourselves to be more precise. When do we use it against ourselves? When we put things off that are good for us, like cutting back on junk food, or skipping the gym, or when we hear someone tell us to test for radon and we don’t.

While it’s difficult to perceive how something we can’t see or smell can hurt us, is there something else stopping us from taking action? After all, the Surgeon General and public health organizations like the ALA and EPA tell us that radon is a leading cause of lung cancer, second only to smoking. We usually take messages from these folks to heart, so why ignore radon?

Dr. Peter M. Sandman is an expert on risk communication. He helps people understand why we fear some things that carry little risk and overlook things which carry a huge risk – like radon. He describes this behavior with a formula: Risk = hazard + outrage. Outrage? What’s that? Suppose a company spills a toxic substance in your neighborhood, creating a health hazard. We’d be angry. Then suppose they’re not forthcoming about the quantity spilled and danger level. We’d be even more angry or OUTRAGED!

The more outraged we were, the greater the perceived risk. Even if the hazard was small, but the outrage large, we’d still perceive a large risk. Now apply this to radon: since it’s natural, there’s no one to be angry with – no outrage. With no one to blame, we somehow convince ourselves that the risk is smaller. This lack of outrage allows us to fool ourselves into not taking action. But consider this: if you found that your children’s school had not tested for radon, or if they had tested, found elevated levels and not told anyone, you’d be outraged – suddenly you would perceive the risk as huge – you would demand action. Consider further, one day your children may have reason to be outraged – at YOU – for not having tested the home they grew-up in!

Test, Fix, Save a Life. Testing is simple and inexpensive. The cost of fixing a home with elevated levels is comparable to other minor home repairs. It’s cheap insurance – against lung cancer and against having your children outraged at you! Learn more about how to test and fix your home.

About the author: Shelly Rosenblum works on the Radiation & Indoor Environments Teams at EPA’s Region 6 Office in San Francisco, CA.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: A Green Chemistry Moon Shot

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Chris Crane

I was born in the late 80’s and like many other members of my generation I often dismiss the idea that there are any challenges in this decade that compare to John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Moon speech: “We shall send to the moon…on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth…and do it first before this decade is out.”

What could compare to that?

After attending the 15th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, I stand corrected. At the conference, EPA Assistant Administrator and “Father of Green Chemistry,” Dr. Paul Anastas gave a keynote on “Molecular Revolution.” While I was expecting something heavily laden with scientific terms, what I heard was a welcome surprise (in English)—especially to a young environmentalist dedicated to a sustainable future.

After taking a moment to marvel at what green chemistry has accomplished in its first 20 years, Dr. Anastas moved to address the hard questions of the future. “Today there exists an absurdity, despite our best efforts… it’s absurd that our products and processes are still of concern.” Manmade substances can cause developmental problems for the unborn, hardwire obesity in the womb, and decrease intelligence before a child is even born, Anastas explained.

Alluding to JFK’s historic speech, Dr. Anastas revealed an equivalent challenge for our generation: “By the end of this decade, we will achieve an end to unintentional manmade hazards and the full incorporation of safe and healthy molecular structures.”

There are three essential components to this goal: 1) Every student and practitioner must be trained in the principles of green chemistry. 2) Industry must use no toxic substances and produce no toxic waste. 3) All chemicals in all products must be known to be free of hazard.

Dr. Anastas is calling for a revolutionary transformation in the core functions of our institutions (moving from production with harmful side effects to sustainable production) and the beliefs that support those functions (that waste and hazards are no longer acceptable).

Despite my tendency to dismiss historical patterns, Dr. Anastas showed me how we are all faced with a modern day moon challenge as we try to create a sustainable world. It’s going to take similar levels of cultural, scientific, and political unity behind this goal if we are going to reach the moon.

About the Author: Chris Crane is an intern with the Science Communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is an environmental economics major at Colgate University.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.