Toxic Substances Control Act

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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Closing the Carpet Loop(hole)

My children are teenagers now, but it seems like yesterday they were toddlers crawling around on the carpet.   It makes you wonder about children’s exposure to  the chemicals that make up the synthetic materials in carpets.  While most of these chemicals pose no risk to human health or the environment (due to their properties and how they are used in the making of consumer products), some do.

Some chemicals used in carpets to resist soil and stains have been found to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in humans and animals— posing potential long-term health risks. More

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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Working to Protect Americans from Toxic Chemicals and Spurring Innovation in the Business Community

Our approach to chemical safety in this country is in dire need of reform. EPA’s tools under our current chemicals management law (the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA) are outdated, time-consuming and have left thousands of chemicals, some of which we encounter in our daily lives, not properly evaluated for health impacts.  While we work for reform of this outdated law, EPA’s goal is to provide chemical information in new ways and create useful tools so American business, environmental groups and the American people can make informed choices and use safer chemicals.

Today we launched ChemView, a web-based tool to help companies make safer chemical choices. I know that businesses and consumers need to make chemical decisions, whether they are product manufacturers choosing between chemicals for a new consumer product, retailers selecting products to carry on their shelves, or consumers choosing which product to purchase in the grocery store.  ChemView will facilitate safer decision-making and provide businesses with the information they need to make safer choices for consumer and commercial products.


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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Reducing Exposure to Formaldehyde in Composite Wood Products

By Jim Jones, Acting Assistant Administrator, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention

The mention of the word “formaldehyde” might conjure up memories of a school science class or museum visits and seeing animals preserved in liquid-filled jars. While formaldehyde may no longer be used for these purposes, it is still used in adhesives to make composite wood products, like particle board and other building materials for furniture and other products. Composite wood products are made from pieces, chips, particles of wood that are bonded together with resins that may contain formaldehyde. The chemical can cause adverse health effects, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, as well as respiratory symptoms and cancer.

In 2010, Congress passed the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, or Title VI of the Toxic Substances Control Act. As required by the Act, today we are proposing limits on how much formaldehyde can be released from a variety of composite wood products and to establish requirements to ensure these products comply with the regulations. The proposed rules align where practical with existing requirements for composite wood products in California.

These requirements, when final, will further reduce the public’s exposure to the formaldehyde found in many products in our homes and workplaces. For new and renovated homes formaldehyde may be reduced up to 26%. Also, when final, they will encourage the industry trend toward switching to no-added formaldehyde resins in products, further reducing you and your family’s exposure to formaldehyde.

While many manufacturers are already complying with the requirements in place in California, EPA’s actions will ensure the same protections for all Americans, no matter what State you live in. In addition, EPA’s proposal expands upon the California regulation by including laminated products, which is estimated to reduce formaldehyde emissions from these products 45 – 90%. The actions will also ensure that the composite wood products sold in this country meet the same standards for formaldehyde regardless of whether they are made in the United States or abroad.

The proposals released today are an example of what can be accomplished when there is adequate statutory authority for action. This lies in stark contrast to the lack of authority EPA has to regulate other chemicals and highlights the on-going need for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, this country’s chemicals management legislation. All Americans have the right to expect that the chemicals used in the products they use every day are safe. The time has come to provide EPA with the tools necessary to protect you and your families from unnecessary risks from all chemicals.

About the author: Jim Jones is the Acting Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is responsible for managing the office which implements the nation’s pesticide, toxic chemical, and pollution prevention laws. The office has an annual budget of approximately $260 million and more than 1,300 employees. Jim’s career with EPA spans more than 26 years. From April through November 2011, Jim served as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. He has an M.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a B.A. from the University of Maryland, both in Economics.

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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