Federal Toxics Law Updated for the First Time in 40 Years
Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine
(AUGUSTA) With the long-awaited legislation to overhaul the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 finally in place, Maine public health advocates are looking ahead to a state-federal partnership in protecting children, workers, and pregnant women from dangerous chemicals.
Public health leaders from the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine say the law signed by the president yesterday gives the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) important new authority to restrict dangerous chemicals used in consumer products but that it also has weaknesses that make a new federal-state partnership critically important in advancing protections from toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products.
"There's reason to celebrate a new law for the nation that upgrades federal authority to reign in the most dangerous chemicals and create opportunities to improve health and environmental quality for all Americans," said Michael Belliveau, Executive Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. "Yet the timetables the new law puts in place mean that EPA action will be disappointingly slow when it comes to evaluating the safety of thousands of chemicals now in commercial use. It is important to note that states still can restrict chemical uses that EPA can't touch or won't address soon. States must continue to act."
Medical professionals have long considered TSCA outdated and ineffective in protecting children, workers, and pregnant women from exposure to dangerous chemicals. They point out that even asbestos, with its record of killing more than 10,000 Americans every year, could not be restricted under TSCA.
Karen D’Andrea, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter stated, “We’re grateful for the new health protections that this law will provide--especially for people most at-risk. There is a tremendous backlog of work to be done in assessing harm, collecting information from manufacturers, and making sure the public is well informed. States with strong chemical safety laws, like Maine, will play a critically-important role in the new system so we can help prevent the cancer, learning disabilities, asthma, and reproductive problems linked to unnecessary chemical exposure.”
Maine parents, physicians, and public health advocates have long-supported an overhaul of TSCA, which grandfathered in the uses of over 60,000 chemicals when the law was first enacted, shielding most chemicals in commerce from safety reviews. The new law creates mandatory timetables for the EPA to complete safety evaluations, however Alliance members point out that the federal government will take five to seven years to simply evaluate each chemical while it handles only 20 chemicals at a time, heightening the need for state governments to speed up consumer protections.
“With 85,000 chemicals in commerce, it would take thousands of years for the EPA to evaluate all of them for safety,” said Tracy Gregoire of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine. “So it goes without saying that states will play an essential role in addressing new chemical threats and assessing the worst chemicals that the EPA just hasn’t gotten to yet. We need strong leadership among the states as well as from international trading partners and business leaders in the marketplace. Each will play an important part in making our products and our economy safer and healthier.”
Another key authority that lies with states alone in the post-TSCA reform era is the ability to require disclosure of toxic chemicals in specific consumer products. In addition to Maine, the states of Washington, California, Vermont, and Oregon have also enacted laws requiring disclosure of chemicals in products. Their actions have sometimes resulted in manufacturers completely reformulating their products in order to avoid disclosing hazardous chemicals. Maine’s law is unique among these states, because it is the only one that allows information to be gathered on products in the home that are likely sources of exposure to harmful chemicals, but are not directly marketed to children.
“States like Maine will be critically important partners in collecting information from manufacturers on their use of dangerous chemicals. This is something the EPA will not be empowered to do under the new system,” said Belliveau. “Maine lawmakers must not abdicate their responsibility to help prevent the disease, disability, and early death that can come from exposure to toxic chemicals.”
Members of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine pointed out that the new law weakens federal authority to intercept imported like toys, shoes, and clothing that contain dangerous chemicals. They also expressed concern that the law is an over-reach of federal authority. States will be blocked from taking action on any chemical that the EPA has named a high-priority. The law permanently blocks state action when the US EPA deems a chemical safe, even if state health and safety officials find information to the contrary.
"Under the new TSCA law, Maine can and must continue to take the lead to protect our families from toxic chemicals by using its authority under the Kid Safe Products Act," said Gregoire. "Maine families have the right to know what chemicals are lurking in the products we use every day. Maine can and should do more to require disclosure on the worst chemicals as well as require phase-outs when appropriate and feasible. We simply cannot afford to wait for the EPA to assess and act on the thousands of chemicals currently used in the products we bring into our homes."
The historically limited reach of TSCA had led some states to take action on their own to identify the most dangerous chemicals, require manufacturers to report their use, and in some cases, replace them with safer alternatives. Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act (KSPA) is one such state framework. The law was passed by the Maine Legislature in 2008 and has since led to the elimination of the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, in reusable food and beverage containers as well as infant formula and baby food packaging. More recently, reporting requirements under Maine’s Kid-Safe law have uncovered first-ever information on the use of phthalates in consumer products. Phthalates have been linked to learning disabilities, reproductive problems, and asthma. Alliance members say that Maine’s law will play a key role under the reformed TSCA.
Chemicals in products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), like cosmetics, additives, medical devices, and food packaging, will not be covered at all by the new TSCA reform law. Like its counterpart at the EPA, the FDA has fallen far behind when it comes to overseeing the safety of these products that the public is exposed to every day.
“We applaud Congress for creating new federal authority to help prevent harm and reduce the burden of disease, disability and early death caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in our daily lives,” said Kathy Kilrain del Rio of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “We are grateful to Rep. Chellie Pingree for opposing federal preemption of state chemical-use restrictions. She stood up for Maine families and Maine’s successful Kid-Safe Products Act. We also appreciate that Senator Susan Collins and Senator Angus King did not co-sponsor the original Senate bill that would have put even harsher limits on states’ rights to take action in protection of their own citizens. Now we look forward to our partnership with federal agencies to protect Maine kids and families from dangerous chemicals.”
Environmental Health Strategy Center is a founding member of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, a coalition of over 50 public health, medical, parent, community, women’s, worker, environmental, and public interest organizations dedicated to protecting public health and the environment by replacing unnecessary dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives.