Over 40 years ago, EPA started to keep a list of all the chemicals in commerce in the USA. With the list growing to over 80,000 chemicals, EPA was able to require testing of only a couple hundred chemicals. Only 5 were banned.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which authorized EPA to keep that list of chemicals, didn't give EPA the power to reassure citizens that the chemicals in the products we use every day are safe. The law became widely considered to be a failure.
As concern continued to grow about cancer clusters, the vulnerability of children and other groups, and ever scarier effects of chemical exposures, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey went to work trying to reform the chemical control law.
The bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (LCSA) passed overwhelmingly and was signed into law on the 22nd of June 2016 by then-President Obama. Even the chemicals lobby supported the bill, noting the importance of consumer trust to the sustainability of their industry.
With news articles multiplying on overturned legislation and budget cuts, we thought we would take a look at how things are going with chemical safety for the 21st century. The good news: EPA continues to take the steps planned to implement the Lautenberg Chemicals Safety Act.
EPA has proposed a rule for what is called the "inventory reset," a first key step towards prioritizing subsequent studies of chemical safety. The inventory reset will use data available to EPA and reporting by industry to figure out how many of the 80 thousand chemicals on the original TSCA list are still active in commerce. Inactive chemicals will be noted as such, and industry will have to notify the EPA if they want to return such chemicals to active status. This is the first, easy step to narrowing down the work ahead.
But not everyone is happy with where the actions pursuant to the LCSA are going. Most recently, the House passed H.R. 1431, the ‘‘EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017” which environmental groups have protested because the act allows EPA science advisers to have significant conflicts of interest and the act sets conditions that will make it hard for the board to finalize conclusions and advance action to control chemicals.
Curiously, the bill appears to allow industry scientists to participate on the board in spite of conflicts of interest while prohibiting independent scientists from contributing if they are receiving, or will receive, funding from EPA for their studies. Given that the government should want to spread grant monies and contracts to the most competent independent scientists, making it impossible for these very people to help guide chemical policy makes little sense.
So while the act on which everyone pins their hopes for a safer future is alive and well under the new administration, it pays to keep an eye open as the next steps are taken. Democracy only works if the people let their representatives know what it is they want: so keep your representatives' contact information handy, and don't be afraid to make your voice heard. Find an organization you trust, like the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America or Clean Water Action organization and join their advocacy network to get updates on the legislation and support in formulating your opinions and input to the process.
We cannot afford to spend the next forty years allowing bad chemistry to hide behind the smokescreen of insufficient data and good chemistry to suffer from a lack of public trust. In the 21st century, we need knowledge about how to use chemicals for their many benefits while ensuring we are not taking risks we don't even understand.