House Advances Chemical Safety Reform Bill, Teeing Up Senate Vote

House Advances Chemical Safety Reform Bill, Teeing Up Senate Vote
A view of the U.S. Capitol Building's Dome, taken from the east side.
A view of the U.S. Capitol Building's Dome, taken from the east side.

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday evening that would reform the country's principal chemical safety law, moving Congress one step closer to the first major revision of the law in nearly four decades.

The bipartisan bill aims to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It passed the House nearly unanimously.

There is fairly strong agreement among congressional representatives that the TSCA needs to be reformed. The law has been criticized for allowing thousands of new chemicals to go on the market in the United States without safety testing, and for failing to keep chemicals that have been found to be harmful off the market.

The House reform bill would allow both chemical manufacturers and the Environmental Protection Agency to flag chemicals for risk evaluation, and would require such evaluations to be completed within three years. The bill would also increase the amount of information about chemicals made available to regulators and health care professionals.

Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) have introduced their own reform legislation in the Senate. That bill passed out of committee in April but has not yet come up for a vote before the entire body.

"Now it’s the Senate’s turn to act on our extremely bipartisan legislation,” said Vitter in a statement following the House vote, describing the Senate process as "a long, difficult road bringing people to the table and negotiating compromise." The bill currently has 21 Republican and 20 Democratic co-sponsors.

There are some key differences between the House and Senate bills that will likely need to be reconciled if and when the Senate version passes. Democratic co-sponsors of the Senate legislation, including Sens. Udall, Tom Carper (Del.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), issued a joint statement Tuesday saying that "while we don’t agree with the details of the House bill, tonight’s vote is yet another bipartisan demonstration that Congress must act."

"We are committed to ensuring EPA has the necessary tools, resources and mandates to create a comprehensive chemical safety system," the senators noted in their statement. "That includes a clear focus on chemicals that pose a risk to the environment and public health, a mandate to review the safety of all new and existing chemicals, authority directing the EPA to test chemicals, assurance that companies can no longer hide information from the public, and clear regulatory authorities."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the most vocal critic of the Senate bill, said she prefers the House approach, though she said it "could still be improved." Among her main concerns has been how the law will deal with states that have passed tougher regulations on specific chemicals.

Environmental and public health groups have had concerns about certain provisions of both the House and Senate bills. Overall, though, they've been generally enthusiastic about the bipartisan reform efforts.

Andy Igrejas, director of the coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said the House bill is "an important step toward the reform we need," and that the bill addresses some of the most pressing concerns that environmental and public health groups have about the current TSCA law. He also said the bill "avoids some of the pitfalls of the Senate approach."

Richard Denison, the lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the group welcomes the House action, but believes a final bill "will need to make considerably stronger and more comprehensive reforms in order to live up to the promise of fixing the key flaws in current law."

Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, was more pointed in his criticism, saying that "Congress has neglected the problem of dangerous chemicals in consumer products for decades, to the great benefit of chemical industry profits."

Cook criticized the House bill for not setting higher safety standards for chemicals or stricter deadlines for agency actions, and for not providing the EPA with additional resources to review the backlog of chemicals.

"American families have waited far too long for a strong regulatory program that aggressively protects their children’s health and safety from toxic chemicals," he said.

Vitter says he expects the Senate to vote on its TSCA reform bill "in the coming weeks."

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