Congress Adopts Chemical Safety Bill

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Last week, Congress passed the first major overhaul of an environmental law in decades. This chemical reform bill is now headed to the President for signature. As we pause to think about how monumental that is, we reflect upon what we’ve won and what we’ve lost. And, above all, we thank you for the incredible work you did to protect our biggest priority of all: Prop 65. Watch the House session on CSPAN.

Since we have seen first-hand how effective state action has been in keeping us safe from toxic chemicals, we focused our efforts on keeping these proverbial cops on the beat. The original bill introduced in the Senate would have concentrated ALL of the power to regulate chemicals in the hands of the EPA—where the chemical industry exerts considerable influence—while tying the hands of the states. Here are a few victories we gained since the original bill was introduced:

  • California’s consumer protection law, Prop 65, and other long-standing state laws were preserved, protecting millions of America children and families from toxic chemicals in our food, air, water and in thousands of everyday products (read more info about Prop 65’s successes). When the bill was first introduced in the Senate, and then passed in the House, it contained language that stripped organizations like CEH of our ability to use Prop 65 to stop companies from putting dangerous chemicals in ordinary products like arsenic in play structures, lead in baby powder, and cancer-causing flame retardant chemicals in children’s furniture.

But, because of your calls, emails, petition signatures, and support of our advocacy on the Hill, we were able to change the problematic language in Prop 65, and fully protect its integrity.

  • While the final deal still takes away significant powers from the states to protect us from toxic chemicals, the “regulatory void” described by the state attorneys general will not apply to the first round of chemicals that the EPA will evaluate for safety. So, even while the EPA is evaluating them, the states will be able to continue to protect their residents from dangerous chemicals.
  • States will have a 12-18 month window to obtain a waiver to take action on a chemical, and that action will remain in place until the EPA takes final action. Even though these state actions will ultimately be preempted if the EPA acts on those chemicals, this waiver is important, because it sets a precedent and gives the free market an incentive to phase out dangerous chemicals, spurring the innovation of alternatives which can positively influence the EPA’s decision. If the state ultimately wants to take stronger actions to protect its residents than the EPA has decided to take, it can apply for a waiver. The waiver provision isn’t perfect and is still a difficult hurdle for states to jump, but at least there is now an option for states that want to protect their citizens.
  • State actions taken under laws passed before April 22, 2016 will continue to be in place. So, that ban on BPA in sippy cups you worked hard to pass in your state (or any other state) will still be enforceable.

CEH thanks key members of Congress for their work on these issues, and in particular for their leadership in protecting Prop 65: Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).

As noted above, there are number of improvements in the final bill, but they were all improvements to a bill that, as introduced, was written by the chemical industry. As Representative Paul Tonko, one of the leaders of TSCA reform, noted during the House floor debate:

We have heard today’s TSCA reform is ‘better than nothing’. But that is a very low bar. We can do better. The public deserves better.

And because the public deserves better, the Center for Environmental Health could not support the bill.

We deserve a TSCA reform that doesn’t restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate chemicals that are imported into the country through products. We deserve a TSCA reform that doesn’t potentially limit the kinds of studies the EPA can consider when evaluating the health and safety of chemicals – even if they are rigorous, peer-reviewed academic studies. A reform that doesn’t create loopholes that would prevent the EPA from taking swift action on persistent chemicals. A reform that doesn’t, after the initial round of 10 chemicals, stop the states from acting just because the EPA announces it will begin to review a chemical of concern.

Even before the ink dries from the President’s pen, our next phase of the work begins. Just as we followed every step of the legislation, we must remain vigilant through the law’s implementation. For, as the well-worn adage goes, the devil is in the details.  And the details will be hard fought.

But we must not let them be bought by the chemical industry, whose interest in profit blinds it from concerns about the health of our children and families. We will need you again when the EPA determines which chemicals it evaluates, issues rules about whether a chemical is safe for the market, and makes decisions about how it is going to make those determinations.

The work in the states can and must continue. In her floor statement, Senator Barbara Boxer sent a message to the states, which is also a message to all of us who are champions of state laws on public health:

“Don’t dismantle what you have going. Rev it up, because you still have the ability to be leaders in protecting your citizens from toxic chemicals.”

So thank you.  Celebrate the victories we were able to achieve together. And get ready to rev it up!