A landmark bill that was just passed by Congress now gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate thousands of potentially toxic chemicals, many of them found in every day household products.
The measure, called The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, was passed by the Senate on June 7 and sent on for President Obama's signature.
The legislation effectively overhauls the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a 1976 law that for decades has essentially left the EPA without the ability to control even the most toxic substances on the market. I have been on the record about the urgent need for such reform since 1993 when I joined the EPA as an Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances.
Even back then it was clear that TSCA had resulted in a deeply flawed system of regulating chemicals in the United States. Essentially the agency had to document that a chemical posed a risk before it could ask the manufacturer to conduct toxicity or exposure tests. Since then I've testified, written letters and visited members of Congress to explain how TSCA has left tens of thousands of chemicals, including potentially toxic ones on the market.
Now that Congress has acted to reform this antiquated law, Americans will finally have the security of knowing that the EPA will be able to ensure that chemicals in furniture, clothing, cleaning products and other common household items are safe before such products are allowed into commerce.
This bill was a compromise, one reached by Republicans, Democrats, the chemical industry, public health leaders like myself, and environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund. And although it is not perfect, this historic measure goes a long way toward fixing a broken system that had allowed two generations of Americans to be exposed every day to potentially toxic chemicals.
Much is at risk. For example, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States today. And although cancer is a complex disorder with many different causes, exposure to toxic chemicals is one way that cancers can get a lethal start. Yet cancers induced by exposure to pollution or toxic chemicals can be prevented. So can other diseases triggered by exposure to dangerous chemicals and that's the beauty in The Lautenberg Act.
Importantly, the bill:
• Requires safety reviews for all chemicals on the market.
• Gives EPA the authority to require health and safety testing for new chemicals before they go into commerce.
• Explicitly protects vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children from exposures to potentially harmful chemicals.
• Makes information about the safety of chemicals available to the public and to health authorities.
Is this legislation without flaws? No, but it is a far better way of regulating chemicals than TSCA, which exposed Americans to toxic chemicals in common products for years, a public health problem that has affected us all. I'll never know, for example, if my brother's death from bladder cancer could have been prevented if we had enacted a stronger chemical law years ago.
Looking forward, as Dean of Milken Institute School of Public Health, as a researcher who has studied this issue and as a mother, I can now finally tell my students and my daughter that they and the next generation will have a stronger level of protection from toxic chemicals because Congress passed a good law.