Elise Miller, MEd, Director
with Davis Baltz, Co-coordinator of CHE Special Projects
While CHE’s primary mission is to bring attention to the emerging environmental health science, how that science is translated into public health policy is of course crucial to improving public health broadly. Along these lines, some unexpected and important developments have taken place on federal chemical policy reform over the last few weeks.
Senator Frank Lautenberg
On May 22, 2013, Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and David Vitter (R-LA) introduced the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (S.1009 or CSIA) with broad bipartisan support. The introduction of the new bipartisan bill was closely followed by the passing of Senator Lautenberg, who died on June 3 of viral pneumonia at age 89. He has been widely remembered and lauded as a champion for public, environmental, and occupational health.
Senator David Vitter
Though CHE, as a whole, does not take a stand on any specific legislation, we wanted to ensure our full membership—on state, national and international levels—is aware of this significant and quickly evolving process.
First, as a bit of background, there is widespread agreement across the political spectrum that chemicals policy in the United States is broken and needs an upgrade. The only law that regulates industrial chemicals in the US, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), dates to 1976 and is considered ineffective and outdated by stakeholders across the political spectrum.
Senator Lautenberg had previously been the author of a different bill known as the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 696), which he had championed for several years, and in fact had reintroduced again in the current Congress. That bill passed the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee in the last Congress, but did not advance further and never had any Republican support. Meanwhile, Senator Vitter worked on a different bill, the intent of which was also to improve the way chemicals are regulated, but which was never made available to the public.
The introduction of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, however, took many by surprise. When first announced, the CSIA was described as a compromise where both sides have made concessions. However, industry has mostly embraced the new CSIA language, while public interest organizations, state governments, legal entities, and others have expressed the need for substantial improvements.
The question currently under debate is whether CSIA is strong enough to reform TSCA in a meaningful way. The bipartisan sponsorship of the bill is big news in politically gridlocked Washington, and for this reason there is momentum for the bill to move. At the same time, there are a number of contentious issues that various entities—many of which have been focused on chemical policy reform for years—strongly believe need to be resolved if this bill is to improve upon TSCA. These include CSIA’s pre-emption of state and local laws, its lack of timelines and deadlines, a weak safety standard that closely parallels the failed TSCA statute, no consideration of aggregate exposure, no acknowledgement of disproportionately affected fenceline communities, and the use of cost-benefit analysis in regulatory decision-making.
In light of Senator Lautenberg’s recent death, concern has also been expressed about who will take on Senate leadership regarding this bill. Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, has publicly stated that she is strongly committed to TSCA reform and it is expected that she will play a key role in next steps in moving a stronger bill forward.
In short, this is a very nuanced, fast-paced and ongoing discussion about various aspects of the bill and how to respond to its introduction. To stay abreast of the latest media reports and other relevant information, please see the Environmental Health News coverage of this topic.