May 18, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

Congress continues to take key legislative steps to reform the 40 year old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The latest move came last week in a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In a bi-partisan unanimous vote (21-0) on May 14, the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy reported out the TSCA Modernization Act. It is now ready for action by the full Committee.

We’ve reported previously on The Pump Handle about a TSCA reform bill making its way in the Senate. The Vitter/Udall bill (S.697) has 39 co-sponsors, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Kim Krisberg (here, here) and Lizzie Grossman (here) have written about problems with S.697, including those identified by key environmental and health organizations. As for the TSCA Modernization Act gaining traction in the House, these groups’ critiques begin with “it’s better than Vitter/Udall.”

Following the House subcommittee’s action on May 14, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, one of the leading public health and environmental coalitions monitoring the action, said

“The new draft is a significant step toward a version of TSCA reform that can enjoy broad support. It’s not there yet, however.”

The 450-member coalition, with groups as diverse as Autism Speaks, Natural Resources Defense Council and the United Auto Workers Union, has concerns with a number of provisions of the bill. They include:

  • Uncertainty about whether it fixes the problem with current law which obstructs EPA’s ability to restrict or ban deadly toxic substances, such as asbestos. We wrote about that problem here.
  • Use of the undefined phrase “unreasonable risk” as a trigger for EPA action, rather than a trigger such as “reasonable certainty of no harm.”
  • Likelihood that EPA will be unable to conduct chemical assessments on its high priority toxic substances because it will be overwhelmed with requests by industry to conduct assessments on their pet compounds. In the current version of the House bill, there’s no cap on the number of industry-requested reviews EPA must conduct, for example, in a given year.
  • Limits on EPA to take action to address health risks from a toxic substance if the proposed action is considered too pricey. Safer Chemicals Healthy Families argues:

“Cost considerations should be reserved for the question of how to mitigate the risk, not whether to mitigate it. As it stands, we believe the draft would allow a major risk – such as a chemical that causes cancer or birth defects – to remain unmitigated if it was deemed too expensive to do so. That is a very different outcome than mitigating the risk in a cost-effective way.”

Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, however, gives a thumbs up to the bill’s authors, for example, steps to preserve the authority of states to take action on chemical hazards. (Lizzie Grossman wrote about that issue here and Kim Krisberg (here.))  The coalition offers this caveat:

We’re still evaluating the bill and will likely communicate our position on the pros and cons more fully and formally to the Energy and Commerce Committee. At first blush, however, the movement is mostly in the right direction and it brings the bill within striking distance of meaningful, if limited, reform, if the Committee continues its work.

I gave up weeks ago trying to understand and digest the Senate’s Vitter/Udall bill. The 175 page document twisted my brain in knots as I tried to compare the current law to S.697’s proposed changes.  I’m still studying the 40-page House bill and will make my own judgement whether to give it a thumbs up or down.



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