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Rare bipartisan bill to make household goods safer becomes law

President Obama signed a sweeping reform of the nation's chemical regulations system, issuing newfound authority to regulators to evaluate the toxicity of chemicals in almost every household product.

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    A woman holds a collection of laundry detergent packets. On Wednesday, President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which updates the Toxic Substances Control Act and places stronger regulations on a host of products from detergents to cars.
    Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
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President Obama signed a bill today that will greatly strengthen the federal government's ability to regulate and monitor the chemicals found in American products from cleansers to clothing.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act is the first-ever update to the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1970s relic, which environmental groups called "one of the worst environmental laws on the books," reports The Washington Post.

"Most Americans believe that when they buy a product at the hardware store or the grocery store, that product has been tested and determined to be safe," said Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, one of the bill's chief sponsors, according to the Post. "But that isn't the case."

The bill, which Obama signed into law in a ceremony at the Oval Office, was named after late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, who had worked to update TSCA for decades until his death in 2013, reported Lucy Schouten for The Christian Science Monitor. The Senate passed the legislation earlier this month in a voice vote, after it received rare bipartisan support in a tumultuous election cycle.

That point was not lost on the president, who, prior to signing the bill, commented that "even in the current polarized political process here in Washington, things can work," adding his hopes that "somewhere on the horizon we can make politics less toxic as well," reports the Post.

The new law creates the first safety standards on chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA), formaldehyde, and styrene, which were previously unregulated. It will allow the Environmental Protection Agency to issue guidelines and deadlines to companies and require them to disclose ingredients.

In the past companies could offer what Richard Denison, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, calls a "trade secret" excuse to avoid disclosing what chemicals are actually in their products, says the Post.

Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., explained to the Monitor in 2014 that the TCSA law was more of a "reporting mechanism" than an EPA mandate to evaluate chemicals.

"That's why we see many, many chemicals in this system that don't have adequate toxicological information," he said.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement that her agency is "excited to get to work" putting the new law into action.

What this means for the short-run is an evaluation of at least 10 possibly toxic chemicals that are found in cars, sofas, clothing, detergents, and cleansers, for example. The Post reports that this initial batch of chemicals under review will include asbestos, formaldehyde, and flame retardants.

Some environmental groups feel that the new law does not go far enough. While others, like Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, feel it goes too far as a "sweeping federal takeover of chemical regulation." However, as Schouten reported earlier this month when the bill passed, the base of support is broad and includes industry groups such as the National Association of Chemical Distributors, Exxon Mobile, and the American Chemistry Council which have indicated they would support a bill that would standardize chemical regulation.

And while the White House released a statement about the bill's passing saying that the new law is "not perfect," it voiced a sentiment that was felt on both sides of party lines: It embodies "meaningful reform."

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