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Bipartisan bill to harness toxic chemicals was years in the making

The US Senate passed a chemical regulations bill on Tuesday, a bipartisan effort to update the nation's decades-old law on toxic chemicals in everyday products.

The first-ever update to federal regulations on toxic chemicals requires a national review of thousands of household and commercial substances, including asbestos and BPA.

The bill passed Tuesday by the Senate requires the "first-ever systematic review of all chemicals in commerce," according to a Senate fact sheet on the legislation.

"For the first time in 40 years, the United States of America will have a chemical safety program that works ... and protects families from dangerous chemicals in their daily lives," Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, one of the bill's chief sponsors, told the Associated Press.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law, at which point it will regulate an $8 billion industry.

The bill updates the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which received criticism for being unenforceable and in dire need of updating. The new bill strikes at both critiques, providing the first safety standards on otherwise unregulated chemicals, including Bisphenol A (BPA), formaldehyde, and styrene.

The old law was the only environmental law that had never been updated, and the EPA had been unable to employ it effectively since its efforts to restrict use of asbestos failed in court in 1991, according to the Senate. It is named after Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, who had worked to update TSCA for decades until his death in 2013.

"TSCA is outdated legislation," Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., told The Christian Science Monitor in 2014. "The way it has worked is when a chemical causes harm, that’s when the EPA will start engaging in taking actions.”

"The way TSCA was developed, it’s mostly a reporting mechanism. Industry uses its own information even if it’s no information when they are reporting to the EPA that they have this chemical," Professor Krimsky added.

"Depending upon EPA staffing and how much time they have, they can review these things. But if they don’t, then they’ll take a very cursory look at it, and they will let it through. That’s why we see many, many chemicals in this system that don’t have adequate toxicological information."

The new bill increases the EPA's enforcement power, offering the agency deadline-based, written guidance about how and when to act. The bill reins in companies' use of proprietary claims to avoid disclosing chemical recipes, effectively blunting the EPA's power to evaluate and regulate compounds.

The National Association of Chemical Distributors, Exxon Mobile, and the industry group American Chemistry Council offered their support for a bill that would clean up the complex regulatory process that varied by state. The bill received bipartisan support in both houses of Congress – including a rare voice vote in the Senate – and the White House in a statement said it meets the goal of "meaningful reform," although it is "not perfect."

Opposition to the bill included Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who said the bill interfered with state regulations in a "sweeping federal takeover of chemical regulation." Some environmental groups said it does too little to regulate toxic chemicals.

The bill protects any state law in place before April 22 and allows the states to work with the EPA while safety assessments are conducted. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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