Committee sends chemical safety measure on to full Senate vote

Posted July 25, 2012, at 8:31 p.m.

A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday signed off on the first major update to the nation’s chemical safety laws since 1976, referring the measure to the full Senate on a party-line vote.

The Safe Chemicals Act, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would expand the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate dangerous chemicals and require chemical manufacturers to provide publicly available information on the chemicals they use and prove their products meet safety requirements before they hit the market.

The bill, which was supported by Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, would be the first update to the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was first passed in 1976.

“Today marks new, exciting momentum for fixing our broken chemical law despite relentless attempts by the chemical industry to derail the process,” Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a Maine-based group that advocates for safer chemicals, said in a prepared statement.

The Environment and Public Works committee vote came a day after former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree testified before the panel and urged senators to pass the chemical safety measure.

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.

“What we learned is that the chemical industry does not always tell the truth,” Pingree told senators. “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.”

Democratic senators on the committee praised Pingree for her work in the Maine Legislature to pass chemical safety legislation.

While Wednesday’s committee vote is noteworthy, it’s far from an assurance that the measure will ultimately pass the full Senate. Safe Chemicals Act supporters have had difficulty attracting Republican support for the measure, though both of Maine’s senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have expressed some measure of support for an updated chemical safety law.

“We’re thankful that Senators Snowe and Collins have demonstrated bipartisan support by calling for reform of the current law, and we look forward to their help in bringing this bill to the Senate floor for a vote this fall,” Belliveau said in his statement.

On Tuesday, Republican senators on the Environment and Public Works committee said it was too soon to vote on the chemical safety measure.

“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.”

Tuesday’s hearing focused on the findings of a recent Chicago Tribune series that revealed 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.

Chemical safety advocates pointed to the series as a sign that a reform to the chemical safety laws was desperately needed.

A representative from chemical manufacturer Chemtura told the panel Tuesday that the 1976 chemical safety law needed some updates but that, overall, the regulatory system has worked well.

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