From life-saving medicines to electronics and building materials, chemistry has produced countless beneficial innovations. At the same time, the unanticipated effects of some chemicals in everything from fabrics to food can be a hazard to both people and the environment. I have cosponsored the first bipartisan legislation that would update and strengthen outdated chemical safety laws, encourage innovation, and help reduce hazards.
Currently, chemicals used in consumer products are regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. This is the only major environmental law that has never been updated, and at 37 years, it’s showing its age. Our new bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, would help bring our nation’s chemical safety laws into the 21st Century.
The 1976 law has had serious limitations from the start. Thousands of chemicals were given grandfathered approval without any safety review. With many thousands more chemicals on the market today, the current complex rules have allowed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test only 200. Just five have been banned.
Our new legislation would modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act and help ensure the safety of everyday consumer products. For the first time, the bill calls for all chemicals to be screened for safety to protect public health and the environment, while also creating an environment where manufacturers can continue to innovate and create jobs. This law would build the public’s confidence in the federal chemical regulatory system; recognize the states’ important role; focus on the type of information needed to make chemical safety determinations; and promote greater transparency of information while protecting confidential business information.
The legislation would establish a scientific system under which EPA would have the best available information to make timely safety determinations about existing chemicals. EPA would be required to identify high priority chemicals for review and to determine whether those substances pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. State governments could make recommendations to the EPA for prioritizing substances.
Under the legislation, safety assessments of high priority chemicals would be based solely on considerations of risk to human health and the environment and would be made available for public comment. Once a science-based safety assessment is conducted, the EPA would then determine whether a chemical meets the safety standard under its intended conditions of use. In a safety determination, the EPA can conclude that a chemical meets the safety standard as currently managed, that it needs additional controls to meet the standard, or that it cannot meet the safety standard under its intended conditions of use even with additional controls, with bans or phase-outs to follow. When evaluating safety, the bill also would require EPA to evaluate the risks posed to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children.
This effort was spearheaded by Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, who passed away on June 3 at 89 years of age, and the bipartisan support of this bill is a tribute to his leadership. His Republican partner in authoring the bill was Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. This legislation is truly bipartisan, and was introduced with eight Democratic sponsors and eight Republicans, including me.
Our bill also has broad support outside of the Senate. It has the backing of former top EPA toxics officials from the Administrations of both President Obama and George W. Bush. The bill has been endorsed by the Environmental Defense Fund, chemical industry trade groups, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
From my travels throughout our state, I know that chemical safety is an issue that Mainers take very seriously. Last year, I met with Maine moms who expressed their frustration as parents because they had no way of knowing if the chemicals used in everyday products are safe for their children. Maine has taken steps in recent years to eliminate or reduce the use of toxic chemicals from certain fabrics, food containers, and our landfills. The issue of chemical safety, however, is not one states can address by themselves.
The Chemical Safety Improvement Act represents a major step forward in the years-long effort to strengthen chemical regulation and a major breakthrough for bipartisanship and compromise in the Senate. While there is always room for improvement, this bill represents a strong step toward better protection for the health of the American people and greater consumer confidence in the products we buy.
Susan Collins is Maine’s senior senator.