The federal government’s primary law regulating chemicals in household products is in desperate need of an update, Maine’s former House speaker told a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
An overhaul of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act would make it more difficult for chemical companies to fabricate information about chemical safety and would take the burden off states to pass chemical safety laws on their own because of a lack of federal regulation, said Hannah Pingree, who served as Maine House speaker from 2008 to 2010.
“This system has been ineffective since the passage of TSCA in 1976,” said Pingree, of North Haven.
Pingree was one of five witnesses to testify at Tuesday’s hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The hearing was a response to a recent Chicago Tribune series revealing that American babies are born with the highest concentrations in the world of flame retardants built up in their bodies and that the tobacco industry and chemical manufacturers spread misinformation about flame retardants’ safety and effectiveness.
The series detailed tobacco industry efforts to pay firefighting organizations and consultants to pose as experts and help the industry push for flame-retardant furniture requirements rather than succumb to pressure to manufacture fire-safe cigarettes.
“What we learned is that the chemical industry does not always tell the truth,” Pingree told senators on the panel. “As a parent, I don’t trust these companies to tell the truth about their chemicals, and I don’t think the U.S. public or senators should, either.”
During her time in the Maine Legislature, Pingree sponsored the 2008 Kid-Safe Products Act, which charges the Maine Department of Environmental Protection with developing plans to restrict the use of dangerous chemicals — including bisphenol A, or BPA — in children’s products such as sippy cups. Pingree now works part-time as a consultant for the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
The changes proposed at the federal level would expand the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate dangerous chemicals. The measure also would require chemical manufacturers provide publicly available information on the chemicals they use and prove their products meet safety requirements before they’re put on the market.
At Tuesday’s hearing, a representative of chemical manufacturer Chemtura Corp. told senators that the Toxic Substances Control Act needs updating but that overall the system has worked well.
“We believe TSCA should be modernized to be more efficient, to use current scientific technologies, and to reflect our improved understanding of how chemicals interact with the human body and the environment,” said Marshall Moore, director of technology, advocacy and marketing for a division of Chemtura.
Still, an overhauled chemical safety law should not substantially restrict use of flame retardants, especially when chemical manufacturers are starting to use safer chemicals to manufacture them, he said.
Tuesday’s hearing took place one day before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to vote on an update to the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Democratic supporters of the measure have been attempting to attract Republican support — Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans, have expressed some measure of support for a new chemical safety law — but it’s uncertain whether those efforts have paid off.
The committee’s Republican members on Tuesday said it was too soon to vote. The ultimate bill should acknowledge the value of flame retardants in delaying the spread of fire and in providing jobs in the chemical industry, they said.
“It’s not hard to understand how this regulation impacts almost every aspect of our economy,” said U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee’s ranking Republican. “Flame retardants are one of many fire safety tools relied on in homes and public places to reduce fire injuries and death.”
Responded Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the chief sponsor of the chemical safety reform law: “We’ll be voting tomorrow on a bill that’s evolved to reflect years of input from all parties, and I hope that my colleagues across the aisle will give it fair consideration.”
“Most of the thousands of chemicals we use are safe,” he said. “This bill will separate those safe chemicals from the ones that are not.”