Unlikely bedfellows support chemical law overhaul

Citing children's safety, politically opposed groups unify to revamp 37-year old chemical safety laws.

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJune 25, 2013 

The Chemical Safety Improvement Act proposed in the Senate last month appears to be that rarest kind of diamond: a piece of legislation receiving support from all sides of industrial and political spectrums.

The bill would update a law regulating chemical safety.

It was sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died June 3 at age 89; and Sen. David Vittle, R-La.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is the No. 2 Republican supporter of the bill, Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern says. Crapo is the ranking member on the Superfund and Toxics and Environmental Subcommittee of the Environmental and Public Works Committee and helped draft the proposal.

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency can call for testing only if evidence surfaces that a substance is dangerous. The government has since required testing for only 200 of the 84,000 chemicals registered in the United States and banned just five.

Critics say the existing law is riddled with exceptions and widely considered ineffective, so much that the government hasn't even tried to restrict an unsafe chemical since courts overturned its asbestos ban in 1991.

The measure would bolster the EPA's ability to test new chemicals and test existing ones. The existing law sets a high bar for the EPA to regulate dangerous chemicals, requiring the agency to find the "least burdensome alternative" to current practice, a difficult standard to meet.

"We are not targeting specific chemicals," Nothern says.

Worries about chemical safety have grown in recent years. Several states have moved to ban certain chemicals in everyday products, including Bisphenol A, a chemical widely used in plastics linked to organ damage.

Flame retardants used in household furniture have come under scrutiny for potential health risks.

The bill is a legacy for Lautenberg, who noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found at least 212 industrial chemicals in humans, "including at least six known carcinogens and dozens that are linked to cancer, birth defects and other diseases."

The updated act would give the EPA new tools:

Æ The agency would review all actively used chemicals and label them as either high or low priority based on their potential risk to human health and the environment. The agency would then subject high-priority chemicals to further review.

ÆRegulators would no longer have to go through a long-protracted rule-making process to get information from companies about their chemicals.

The EPA would have greater flexibility to take action on chemicals deemed unsafe, ranging from labeling requirements to outright bans on things such as asbestos.

The bill received endorsement from its most likely opponent, the American Chemistry Council, which spent more than $9 million lobbying Congress in 2012 advocating for the chemical industry.

The council's website calls for modernizing the law to ensure safety of children, public confidence in chemical regulation and America's position as a global chemical innovator. "We think it's a very fair and very balanced proposal," says Calvin Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council.

However, the council also urges Congress to not look to foreign chemical regulations - which are more stringent than the proposed changes in the U.S. - as a model.

John Reuter, executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho, says the law is overdue for an update in order to test chemicals in products such as couches and toothpaste that have been linked to childhood cancer.

"That's the kind of broad support there is to find ways [for] protecting [the] health of our children and developing babies," he says.

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Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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