The Chemical Safety Act: landmark reforms to a forty-year-old law and their implications for public health and the environment.

Annie Taylor, Program Coordinator, EGA

Last week, President Obama signed a bill updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a forty-year-old law originally intended to regulate the introduction of new chemicals that posed a threat to public health and the environment. At the passage of TSCA, over 62,000 chemicals already existed on the market, making many of them exempt from toxicity testing. Fundamentally, these recent reforms now ensure that all chemicals – both those currently manufactured or used in the U.S. and those being introduced – are safe for people and the environment. In an effort spanning multiple years, Congress drafted and passed The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (H.R. 2576) on June 7th. 

In bringing chemical regulations into the present, the law now requires the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate the toxicity of existing chemicals, prioritized by their potential risk. If a substance or chemical is designated as a high priority, the EPA will face a hard deadline by which to complete a risk evaluation, which will now explicitly consider any risks to susceptible or highly-exposed populations. These enforceable deadlines represent a huge improvement on the past system, which was so slow and burdensome that the EPA could not effectively ban asbestos, a carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year. The law also establishes greater transparency of chemical information, both with regards to the public as well as to health and environmental professionals, and provisions funding to the EPA for implementation.

Many foundations and NGOs began advocating for this type of reform over a decade ago. The bill’s passage marks a landmark achievement, and represents the first major update to an environmental statute in 20 years. Now that the bill has been signed into law, the focus will shift to the EPA’s implementation of these new regulations. In a conversation sponsored by the Health and Environmental Funders Network, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and Rachel's Network, chemical safety advocates and regulatory implementation experts discussed possible opportunities to ensure effective implementation of the reforms, as well as strong protections for the environment and consumers.

These experts emphasized that the speed and efficacy of priority designation and chemical risk evaluation will matter most to public health. Experts also highlighted the EPA’s new ability to require an affirmative finding of safety before a new chemical hits the market, which now guarantees a common-sense protection against untested chemicals. These advocates will help to hold the EPA accountable to future deadlines, and watchdog any possible exploitation of ambiguous language within the law. In particular, chemicals assigned a low-priority designation will not be immediately subject for review – it is still unclear which substances will qualify, and whether or not this result could be problematic for people or the environment.

Moving forward, funders and advocacy groups will play an essential role in fighting the regulatory battles that undoubtedly exist ahead. Ultimately, the Chemical Safety Act brings the U.S. one step closer to reducing chemicals that pose a significant threat to public health and the environment.

For more information, you can read highlights of the Chemical Safety Act’s key provisions or read the President's remarks at the signing.