TSCA reform on the horizon (progress, but questions remain)


You know how you have to go slow before you can go fast? Well– reforming The Toxic Substances Control act of 1976 (TSCA) has been the slowest rolling train of all. I’ve been writing about it steadily since the birth of my youngest daughter.

She just turned 9.

And other organizations have been working on this issue long before I jumped in. Now, we have a bill. For several years, we’ve had bills. They’ve varied in their level of protection, and Congress and environmental organizations have wrangled about the details.

But now it appears we are as close as we’ve ever been. I’ve been scouring the web, looking at the positions of our favorite and most trusted partners in public health. First, I was weary, because I heard that there was no state exemptions allowed in this bill– and that the updated TSCA would trump all the great progress some states have made in protecting citizens from toxic chemicals. Like little Vermont. We’ve banned flame retardants in mattresses, lead in children’s products, and started a robust state program of determining harmful chemicals. An updated TSCA that didn’t allow for this progress to stay would dismantle many of the protections we have in place.

I was right to worry. The issue of continuing states’ progress and avoiding exemption is not clear under the new law. In fact, 6 environmental regulators from different states (including Vermont) have written Congress urging them not to limit the actions states can take on toxic chemicals. They said:

We urge those working on the bill to improve the provisions dealing with state preemption. This could include making waivers more accessible to states, preserving state abilities to ban chemicals (as currently exists under TSCA), and removing or reforming the proposed regulatory “pause” that blocks a state from regulating a chemical that the EPA is only examining. We appreciate the hard work that some members have already devoted to protecting state authorities, and urge final TSCA reform legislation to maintain states’ abilities to protect our citizens.

We at Non-Toxic Kids agree– keep the strong work of the states who have protective laws in place (and their ability to create new protective legislation). The reformed TSCA bill would harm more families if state legislation is overridden by more lax federal standards. This is a deal breaker for us.

But there is a lot of good here.  According to this factsheet by our friends at EDF Health, the Lautenberg Act:

  • Mandates safety reviews for chemicals in active commerce.
  • Requires safety finding for new chemicals before they are allowed on the market.
  • Replaces TSCA’s burdensome safety standard — which prevented EPA even from banning asbestos — with a pure, health-based safety standard.
  • Explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations like children, pregnant women and workers.
  • Gives EPA enhanced authority to require testing of both new and existing chemicals.
  • Sets aggressive, judicially enforceable deadlines for EPA decisions and compliance with restrictions.
  • Makes more information about chemicals available, by limiting companies’ ability to claim information as confidential, and by giving states and health and environmental professionals access to confidential information they need to do their jobs.
  • Requires EPA to reduce animal testing where scientifically reliable alternatives exist that would generate equivalent information.
  • Requires EPA to prioritize and expedite action on chemicals that are persistent and bioaccumulative, and that are known human carcinogens and have high toxicity.
  • Retains significant role for states in assuring chemical safety, while strengthening the federal role.

This is all incredible progress. Finally, a shift from the backwards thinking of “go ahead! put that chemical in a product!” and then, only after it showed harm, take it out. Maybe. Many times, this was after years of gathering proof, while exposures continued. We call it chemical harm Whack A Mole. Also, a focus on protecting vulnerable populations– not bottom lines– is critical. Health should be the only criteria, not cost. These are all excellent revisions.

But, where does this bill leave cities, counties and towns making progress toward protecting communities? This remains unclear. What we need to know is what will this bill undo? What are the unintended consequences?

For example, progress has been made in the area of coal tar sealants used in pavement. These sealants have been linked to harm in children and polluting waterways. They have been banned in Washington and Minnesota. Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas shared concerns about TSCA reform disrupting this work, because :

“I share your concern with the language on preemption of state and local laws on dangerous chemicals. It threatens the coal tar sealant bans by the City of Austin and the Edwards Aquifer Authority, as well as the ongoing efforts to ban coal tar sealants in San Antonio.”

So while we at Non-Toxic Kids are excited about the progress of TSCA reform, we want to protect the mighty progress that has been made by states, towns, and communities to protect their citizens. We will keep you posted. Please add any of your questions about this bill, thoughts or ideas in the comments.

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