After years of gridlock, the President signed a strongly bipartisan bill to update a 40-year-old act monitoring toxic chemicals, including lead-based paint and asbestos, into law.

The bill revitalizes the “Toxic Substances Control Act,” (TSCA) originally passed in 1976, under President Gerald Ford. The “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act,” (H.R.2576) was signed into law on 22 June 2016. It easily passed the Senate on 17 December 2015 and the House on 23 June 2015; negotiations between the two chambers continued for several additional months.

Senator David Vitter (R-LA), Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and their staff did the brunt of the work on the bill, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said on the Senate Floor after the bill passed the Senate. The new law “will create more regulatory certainty for American businesses and uniform protections for American families,” Inhofe said.

“For the first time in our history, we’ll actually be able to regulate chemicals effectively,” President Barack Obama said as he signed the bill into law. “So this is a big deal. This is a good law. It is an important law. Here in America, folks should have the confidence to know that the laundry detergent we buy isn’t going to make us sick, the mattresses our babies sleep on aren’t going to harm them,” President Obama said.

Honoring a legacy

The bill is named after Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who had worked with Vitter on an earlier bill until Lautenberg passed away during his term in June 2013. “We introduced our first bipartisan bill that led to this updated bill in 2013,” Vitter said during a press conference for the bill when it passed the Senate in December. Udall stepped in for Lautenberg after his passing.

“TSCA remains the only major environmental law that hasn’t been updated since its initial passage,” Vitter said. Although stakeholders from various sectors called for the bill’s update, disagreements on exactly how to update the bill stalled its progress, Vitter said. The 1976 act put the Environmental Protection Agency in charge of monitoring chemical substances, according to EPA’s website. TSCA does not monitor food, drugs, cosmetics or pesticides.

“I think that Frank Lautenberg today is looking down on us and he’s beaming. He would say good job and now get it done for our children and grandchildren,” Udall said.

President Obama echoed Udall’s sentiments while signing the bill into law. “I had the great privilege of knowing Frank. I served with him. This bill was being worked on when I was on Frank’s committee and Barbara’s committee — the Environmental and Energy Committee — 10 years ago.  And Frank was passionate about this,” the President said.

Updates in the new bill

The new bill will make it mandatory and easier for the Environmental Protection Agency to review chemicals that are currently available, as well as new chemicals waiting to make their debut, on the market. It also gets rid of an antiquated, bureaucratic method of evaluating safety, replacing it with one that focuses solely on risks to human health – the law explicitly protects vulnerable populations including pregnant women and children from exposures to potentially harmful chemicals. And, the law authorizes funding for scientists and administrators at the EPA to carry out their tasks.

More specifically, the bill will allow the EPA to efficiently regulate chemicals that the EPA has determined to have the potential for high exposure and hazard, such as asbestos and trichloroethylene, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said during the December press conference. The bill also mandates safety reviews for all chemicals on the market, requires that all new chemicals undergo a safety review, replaces TSCA’s cost-benefit safety standard (which had prevented EPA from banning asbestos) with a health-based safety standard, sets aggressive, enforceable deadlines for EPA decisions and makes chemical information more widely accessible, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

The law “will create a predictable and transparent federal system to regulate the safety of chemicals based on the latest science, providing greater regulatory certainty to the chemical manufacturing industry and striking a balance between state and federal roles in chemical safety management,” Vitter said in a statement.  The bill includes a national program that ensures industry can remain innovators and isn’t “burdened by too many rules,” Vitter said.

Although the law is a significant leap forward, it isn’t the end of the road. “This isn’t the last step — we must ensure the new program is a success. And as the lead Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the EPA’s budget, I’m putting the EPA and the industry on notice: I will be watching,” Udall said in a statement.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks before signing H.R. 2576, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, as Dr. Lisa Huguenin and her husband, Marc, and son, Harrison, look on (reflected in mirror), in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building South Court Auditorium, June 22, 2016. Dr. Huguenin’s research about occupational exposure to toxic chemicals is also personal, as her family has experienced health problems that could be linked to environmental chemicals. She introduced the President before he spoke. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Reactions to the bill

Eric Byer, president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors – an international association of chemical distributors and their supply-chain partners – praised passage of the updated TSCA bill. “A strong, credible federal chemical regulatory program is crucial for the American public and for small businesses, including U.S. chemical distributors, their customers, and the hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect workers they represent,” Byer said in a statement.

Richard Denison, EDFAction lead senior scientist, said, “This is a milestone to be celebrated, but the work is far from done.” “The final bill must maintain strong public health protections, including ensuring that EPA focuses on chemicals of highest concern and affirms the safety of new chemicals before they are allowed on the market,” Denison continued.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow