Andy Igrejas By Andy Igrejas, campaign director

If you’ve been following our campaign — or the debate over chemical policy — you know that we reached a milestone on April 15, when both the U.S. House and Senate unveiled strong legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

As the House is planning action on the legislation very soon, I thought it was worth taking stock of what the key issues are in the House bill, what they mean on a practical level, and where the coalition would like to see improvement. Chairman Waxman and Chairman Rush are already meeting with key stakeholders and planning votes in June. It’s a great time for concerned citizens to get involved in the debate and help influence the outcome.

Turning chemical policy right-side up

As we noted in our press response that day, the new legislation is really a big deal. For the first time, the chemical industry would be required to demonstrate that chemicals are safe, rather than the EPA having to prove they are unsafe. In a major shift the legislation would require chemical manufacturers to provide basic health and safety information for all chemicals as a condition for them remaining on or entering the market. This was a key demand of our coalition and we’re very happy to see it included.

New leverage for consumers demanding non-toxic products

The legislation also makes most of this information public, acknowledging that it isn’t only useful to EPA, but to “the market.” Companies that use chemicals to manufacture products, as well as consumers like you and me, have a right to know basic safety information about chemicals. For example, in response to consumer pressure, companies like Staples and Kaiser-Permanente have already adopted policies to weed out the bad chemicals from their supply chain. Under the new legislation, businesses will gain access to the information they need to make sure they’re not passing along toxic chemicals to their consumers. And consumers will have even more leverage to demand non-toxic products from retailers. In this way, the market — including both businesses and consumers — can create change.

Cooling down toxic ‘hot spots’

The House bill also reflects a key demand of environmental justice advocates: that EPA identify communities that are disproportionately exposed to chemicals (aka toxic “hot spots”) and implement actions to bring that exposure down. Hot spots may arise because of their proximity to industrial plants, diesel refueling stations, or toxic waste dumps — and are often located in black, Latino, and low-income communities. Right now these “hot spots” are basically lost in the sauce because EPA focuses on the “average” person. But for the same reason you’ve never met anyone with 2.5 children, that system leaves out millions of people who live in communities — like the industrial Ironbound community in Newark where I was born — where just getting to “average” exposure would be a huge improvement. Kudos to the bill sponsors for recognizing this and doing something simple and pragmatic to address it.

Naming names

The legislation also acknowledges that EPA’s efforts to regulate specific chemicals historically get bogged down by political pressures. So it actually names 40 known dangerous chemicals — including recent arrivals like bisphenol A (BPA) as well as old-timers like formaldehyde — and directs EPA to accelerate evaluations of these chemicals and propose appropriate restrictions within a year. This requires at least some kind of meaningful decision on a reasonable timeframe.

Punting on PBTs

But the legislation punts on several issues where it really should take a stand, like PBTs. It acknowledges that persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs) are uniquely dangerous, yet it stops short of defining a clear path to reduce their use. Instead of legislative action, the bill sponsors chose to leave it to the regulators to come with a new way to assess their safety, further delaying meaningful action to control them. That legislative open-endedness is simply not good enough for a class of chemicals already subject to restrictions all over the world.

Washington State, for example, is years into a PBT policy that basically says when something is a PBT you have to move away from using it except for uses that are critical and for which there are no viable alternatives. That’s also how Europe is now treating PBTs. It’s how the Stockholm Convention — signed by President George W. Bush — treats PBTs. Many major businesses also already treat PBTs this way. The legislation should take a stand, and we ask you to join us in demanding stronger action on PBTs

New chemicals get off too easy

Surprisingly, the House draft appears to allow new chemicals onto the market without having to go through a safety determination, as long as EPA believes they are not “reasonably anticipated” to pose a risk. This provision could well undermine one of the core goals of reform that is widely understood by the public — that all new chemicals should have to be proven safe before they are allowed onto the market.

Ignoring key scientific recommendations

The legislation ignores a major scientific development of the past few years. The National Academy of Sciences — our nation’s premiere scientific body — was asked by EPA to look into what has gone wrong with EPA’s process for assessing the risks of chemicals. It described the process as “bogged down” and pointed out that some assessments “take more than 10 years.” But it also found that EPA’s assumptions and scientific practices in assessing chemicals are out of date. They have not kept pace with the latest science. They incorrectly exonerate chemicals that should be controlled, with the result being that we will continue to be exposed to them for years.

The National Academy’s eight detailed recommendations for how EPA should reform its practices were released in 2008. It seems bizarre not to use this opportunity to require EPA to implement the recommendations. And it would be tragic to miss this opportunity, because laws like TSCA open up only once in a generation, and because the Academy’s findings could lead to immediate improvements in our health and safety.

Bolstering the EPA’s ability to act

You may have noticed that a common theme across what I’ve identified as both good and bad in the new legislation is the observation that EPA’s approach to chemicals management has in many ways been dysfunctional and that, without strong legislative impetus, it may be unable to achieve strong reform. It’s important to realize that, although there are great people in EPA (Administrator Jackson appears to be a sincere and committed reformer eager to bring out EPA’s best) the agency has been politicized and beaten down over the years.

By taking a tough stands on issues like PBTs, new chemicals, and the National Academy’s recommendations, Congress will be doing Administrator Jackson — and future EPA Administrators — a favor. Strong laws will bolster EPA’s ability to take decisive action and, eventually, lead to better health for all American communities.