Lautenberg-Vitter Is a Breakthrough for Flawed Toxics Law | Commentary

Posted September 17, 2013 at 10:59am

One thing I learned during my years of public service is that no piece of legislation is perfect. However, in the current debate over modernizing and strengthening our decades-old chemical regulation law, the status quo is not an option. Not when we finally have the opportunity to pass a bipartisan bill that will ensure the safety of chemicals that Americans are exposed to in their everyday lives.

The Toxic Substances Control Act, which oversees the regulation of chemicals in the United States, was signed into law in 1976 and is sorely outdated. I saw this firsthand in my more than three decades working at the Environmental Protection Agency, first as a staff chemist and eventually as the director of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. After working with TSCA for nearly the entire time the law has been in force, it’s clear that there are serious gaps and limitations that need to be addressed.

This isn’t necessarily a new or unique conclusion. In fact, there is wide recognition that the law should be reformed. While there were high hopes within the EPA and elsewhere that TSCA would establish an effective program to identify and regulate potentially dangerous chemicals, the nearly four decades since have shown that the current law is not up to the task. The law provided broad authority but vague priorities to guide the EPA’s work. This combination never came together in a way that could yield an agreed set of program goals that would then be pursued to test and manage the risks of the thousands of chemicals in commerce.

TSCA stands as the only major federal environmental statute that has never been updated. That’s why so many groups stepped forward to support the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Sen. David Vitter when they brokered a bipartisan compromise with the Chemical Safety Improvement Act to improve the effectiveness of federal chemical regulation.

The CSIA is good news for American families and the environment because it gives the EPA the mandate and the authority needed to conduct safety assessments of chemicals, identify potential risks, and take action to protect children, families and the environment from exposure to chemicals that present unreasonable risks of harm. This is particularly meaningful when you consider that when TSCA was enacted, thousands of chemicals were allowed to remain in use even though they had not undergone any evaluation, and TSCA compounded the problem by making it difficult to implement an orderly process to review and regulate these “grandfathered” chemicals.

The CSIA would require, as a matter of U.S. policy and law, that all chemicals, including the grandfathered ones already in use, be systematically evaluated for safety.

The legislation will also make it much easier for the EPA to obtain the test data needed to assess health and environmental effects. CSIA deals with what I consider to be the central failing of TSCA by giving the EPA streamlined authority to require industry to conduct chemical testing using any of several regulatory approaches.

My hope is that the CSIA will help restore confidence in the safety of chemicals among the American public and allow the United States to regain its international leadership role on the critical matter of chemical assessment and management. We can realize both these goals by creating a new gold standard for America and the world. The CSIA will help to accomplish this.

After years of talk and little action, the CSIA establishes a strong foundation that is grounded in sound scientific understanding. It appropriately balances health and environmental protections with economic factors that are key to America’s future competitiveness and American innovation.

As the legislation moves through Congress, it is important to remember this: The CSIA is a true breakthrough and provides the best chance in a generation to modernize and strengthen the regulation of chemicals. Let’s not compound TSCA’s failings by turning our backs on this opportunity and leaving it to future generations to fix.

Charles M. Auer is the former director of the EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, where he was responsible for chemical assessment and management issues.