Back in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was first enacted. But it’s never had the power it truly needed until President Obama signed a bipartisan bill into law that reforms TSCA so it requires EPA to evaluate existing chemicals with clear, enforceable deadlines.
“Forty years after TSCA was enacted, there are still tens of thousands of chemicals on the market that have never been evaluated for safety because TSCA didn’t require it,” says EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “And the original law set analytical requirements that were nearly impossible to meet, leaving EPA’s hands tied, even when the science demanded action on certain chemicals.”
McCarthy points to asbestos as a prime example – this chemical was easily determined unsafe but proved difficult to ban - it is, in fact, still being used today in things like automatic transmission components and vinyl floor tiles. During the 40 years since TSCA was enacted, McCarthy says only five chemicals have ever been banned.
But with this newest reform, that all could change.
“Within a few years, EPA’s chemicals program will have to assess at least 20 chemicals at a time, beginning another chemical review as soon as one is completed,” McCarthy says.
Also, McCarthy notes that under the old law, EPA was unable to take action to protect public health and the environment, even if the agency could prove that a chemical posed a known health threat.
“Under the new law, EPA will evaluate chemicals purely on the basis of the health risks they pose, and then take steps to eliminate any unreasonable risks we find,” she says.
Richard Denison, lead senior scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, says what comes next is just as important as getting the bill signed into law in the first place.
“It’s vital that its implementation lead to improved public health protection as well as a restoration of public confidence, after decades of erosion of that confidence under a badly broken chemical safety system,” he says. “That means the EPA needs to be given some breathing room, to get a new system up and running, and to get some points on the board early that demonstrate its ability to make decisions and take needed actions.”
EPA has conservatively estimated there are more than 12,000 agricultural chemicals used in the U.S. each year, with more than 80,000 total chemicals used in the U.S. annually.