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Issues Of The Environment: Reforming The Toxic Substances Control Act

Rebecca Meuninck
Courtesy Photo
The Ecology Center

The Flint water crisis  is only one of many water quality issues that need to be addressed.  There are numerous threats to the Great Lakes and Michigan's  inland waters.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair speaks with Ecology Center Deputy Director Rebecca Meuninck about updating the federal Toxic Substances Control Act to better protect these natural resources. 


  * In 2015, Congress at long last began to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  This spring, leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives — including Congressman Fred Upton, who represents Michigan's6thDistrict and, as chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, has played an instrumental role in ushering the reform along — are meeting to reconcile differences in their own versions of the new legislation.

  * Last year, the US Congress took major steps toward chemical safety reform by passing bills to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.  The Senate passed its bill just before the holidays; the House passed its chemical safety bill in June.  Now, the two pieces of legislation must be combined before the final version can go to President Obama for his signature.

  * According to advocates at the Ecology Center, there are also provisions, especially in the Senate bill, that exist solely to help out special interests.  For example, the Senate bill makes it harder for EPA to restrict chemicals in imported products.  It would let some chemicals off the hook without a thorough safety review and it would block states from taking action on chemicals while EPA is reviewing their safety, which could take years.  The House bill largely avoids those problems, but it fails to provide EPA with new resources and a mandatory schedule.

  * Opposition to these reforms primarily comes from chemical industry lobbyists who argue that the current TSCA regulations are strong enough and that industry regulates itself, as an unsafe product is detrimental to a company’s image, and they claim that chemicals used to keep consumers safe (flame retardants or preservatives for example) may be eliminated under the new regulations.

  * RebeccaMeuninck, deputy director of the Ecology Center, serves on the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF) steering committee, and although she is critical of both bills, she has been championing their progress and pushing for meaningful revisions to give the bills teeth in terms of more regulatory control over current and future chemicals in the marketplace.

TSCA Reforms

Senate Bill passed in 2015:  In June, the US Senate passed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform legislation by unanimous consent.  The legislation would reform our nation’s main chemical law, which has been in dire need of change for many years.  The Senate bill now must be reconciled with a very different House bill, co-sponsored by Congressman Upton, and passed by the US House of Representatives in June.  Public health and environmental organizations, in Michigan and nationally, have generally preferred the House version.

The bill passed despite strong opposition from health and environmental advocates in Michigan.  The Senate bill would undermine the ability of states to protect their residents by blocking state action on priority chemicals.  Under this bill, many chemicals are cleared for use without completing a safety determination by claiming they are “low priority.”  The bill also makes it harder to halt imported products that contain toxic chemicals restricted in the U.S.

The Ecology Center’s press release following the passage of the Senate bill emphasized the negative aspects of the bill for two reasons:

   1.  The Senate bill has been accompanied by a full propaganda push by the industry and its allies, requiring some rebalancing and perspective on our part.

   2.  Recently, and more troubling: in the run-up to this vote, we saw strong indications that the chemical industry’s playbook for the upcoming conference process will be to walk back the few key wins for public health and the environment, including walking away from a strictly health-based standard and an enforceable schedule of reviews.

House Bill passed 2015:  They said, “The next phase of the process will therefore be most crucial.  As we’ve said before, the strength of the House bill is that it acknowledges that it is a limited reform, and it focuses on the fundamentals.  The House bill simply removes the key pieces of TSCA that had prevented EPA from testing, evaluating, and restricting chemicals where needed. It also asks for expedited action on chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.  Like the Senate bill, it defines vulnerable populations and requires that they are protected. It has an important principle that nothing changes for the states unless and until EPA actually exonerates a chemical after a full safety review or restricts it to ensure safety.

The House bill still falls short by not providing new resources for EPA, making inadequate reforms to confidential business information, and not having clearer grandfathering of certain key state laws.

To combine the best of both bills would be to work off of the House bill and address these shortcomings, by pulling selectively from the Senate bill.  If the conference committee does that, we could end up with TSCA reform that is more limited than we had hoped for, but still meaningful in the protection it steadily provides.  “Ten chemicals per year” sounds like a small number but one chemical or class of chemicals can have an enormous reach in the economy and impact on our health.  If EPA tackles some of the worst first, and truly protects disproportionately exposed populations, like environmental justice communities or factory workers, it would make a big difference to actual people.  Ditto for the PBT provisions.”

Many of the toxic chemicals found in our lakes and in our bodies get there by migrating out of the household products we use every day.  Studies conducted in Michigan have found heavy metals, bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, toxic flame retardants, and many more nasty chemicals in children's products, furniture, cars, and our homes. (The Ecology Center has conducted numerous studies on the dangerous toxins lurking in ordinary items, recently phthalates in flooring, flame retardants in car seats, and numerous toxins in “dollar store” products.)

These are just a few of many reasons why efforts underway in Washington, D.C., to reform national policy to regulate chemicals in everyday products couldn't be more urgent.  The centerpiece of that policy is the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.  The act, which became law in 1976, is both out of date and lacks the teeth to protect Americans and our environment from toxic chemicals.  In fact, the EPA has only assessed approximately 200 chemicals out of about 83,000 in commerce, and it has banned or restricted the use of just five.

The bills that came out of the House and Senate are complex, containing many important — and, as you might guess, contentious — elements.  So they're difficult to summarize.  But two provisions in particular have been of concern to public health advocates.

Strengths and Weaknesses of House and Senate Bills

Senate Bill - First, a loophole in the Senate bill would make it harder for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify and ban imported products with toxic chemicals.  That loophole would allow foreign-made toys, furniture, and other consumer products containing harmful chemicals to be sold in U.S. stores. It's in the best interest of Michigan-based manufacturers, retailers, workers and consumers to have better protections against hazardous imported products, not to make it easier for toxic imports to get on store shelves.

Serious problems with the Senate legislation include:

   · Making it more difficult for EPA to identify and intercept imported products containing toxic chemicals.  

   · States will still be blocked from taking action while EPA studies a chemical, potentially delaying urgent public health interventions.

   · The “low priority” category requires EPA to ‘green-light’ some chemicals without a thorough safety review.

Michigan-based manufacturers, retailers, workers and consumers would all greatly benefit from better protections against hazardous imported products.  However, the legislation actually makes it harder for anyone to know the products they are buying and selling are safe.

House Bill - Second, the House version of the act contains stronger provisions than its Senate counterpart regarding the protection of states' rights to pass chemical regulations to protect public health and the environment.  States are more flexible than the federal government and can often act more quickly to address concerns that are unique to their environment and residents.  For example, states such as Michigan led the way in banning certain toxic flame retardants called PBDEs that were building up in our environment and contaminating fish, wildlife and people in the state.  It was only after states like Michigan passed bans onPBDEs that the federal government finally took action.

Reforms Requested by the Ecology Center’s Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition

A letter from the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition to US Senate and House leadership about the two bills and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Reasons Overhaul of the TSCA is Needed

  * Babies in the U.S. are born with over 200 chemicals in their bodies.

  * A recent World Cancer Report predicted 57% increase in cancer rates in next 20 years, and they said prevention is desperately needed.

  * Emerging science is increasingly identifying health problems from chemicals - including a new study showing children's brains are increasingly harmed from toxic chemicals.

  * Learning disabilities,autism, pediatric cancer, breast cancer, thyroid disease, and many other health problems are linked to unregulated toxic chemicals exposure.

Online Petition

Rebecca Meuninck says, “We also have an active petition to the conference committee and leadership which has a bullet point list of items we believe are needed in the final bill.” 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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