The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA for short) is a federal law in the United States that gives the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to set, maintain, and enforce regulations related to the use of chemical substances. The regulation does not include any oversight into areas of food, drugs, cosmetics, or pesticides, but it does cover many industrial chemicals. Today, however, there are many who believe that the TSCA does not extend sufficient powers to the EPA to effectively protect the public at large from the health risks these chemicals may pose.
Toxic substances have become a major concern in our daily lives. While many substances like formaldehyde[1, 2, 3], chlorine[4, 5, 6, 7], and fluorine[8, 9, 10] have become staples of modern industry, their widespread use is harmful to the general public. That’s because we don’t have to come into direct contact with the sources of these types of toxic chemicals and substances to be exposed. Many such toxins have leeched from various sources into our environment. How did the EPA let this happen?
The EPA’s Limited Power to Combat Toxic Substances
It’s easy to point an accusatory finger at the EPA for the presence of so many chemicals making their way into our environment, but the agency really shouldn’t be blamed. The truth is that the original TSCA legislation did not provide the agency with the power to effectively control the use of toxic substances. Under the long-standing law, the EPA’s authority is surprisingly limited in terms of asking questions and conducting studies related to the safety of chemicals that are already on the market. The agency has primarily served as a mere adviser. Because of these limitations, the EPA has only been able to investigate 90 chemicals since the law was signed in 1976. Of those, they have only been able to successfully ban the use of 5 such chemicals. That’s an incredibly poor ratio considering that the EPA’s chemical inventory list tallies over 85,000 substances and grows by nearly 1,000 more each year. Fortunately, President Obama signed an amendment to the TSCA just last week. The new legislation promises to give the agency greater ability to protect the public from toxic substances.
An Amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act
The TSCA itself is intended to cover the manufacturing, processing, distribution, use, and disposal of certain chemicals used for commercial or industrial purposes. Because of the EPA’s limited abilities to do so, there has been a debate over changing this law for about a decade. Finally, in 2013, senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and David Vitter (R-LA) submitted a TSCA reform bill to the House Energy Subcommittee on Environment and Economy that was intended to instate more authority into the EPA with regard to these harmful chemicals. This bill moved relatively quickly through Congress. It was passed in the House on May 24th of this year, and from there moved to the Senate. On June 7th, the Senate followed suit, allowing President Obama to sign it into law. He did so on June 22nd.
What Does This New Legislation Mean?
One of the major complaints against the original law was that the EPA did not have the power to thoroughly examine the safety of existing chemicals. As for new chemicals, companies were required to register them before use. Upon registration, though, these chemicals were automatically marked as “approved” unless the EPA was able to show that they pose an “unreasonable threat” to either human health or the environment. The new amendment will also prevent companies from protecting key information about their use of existing chemicals. Previously, many organizations have deflected this type of investigation by using “trade secrets” loopholes. Much of the EPA’s previous inability to truly regulate the use of toxic substances has been addressed with this bill. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with the results.
Opposition to New TSCA Reform
Obviously, many companies who rely on toxic substances for their bottom line are not happy to see this new legislation make its way through Congress. However, there are some state-level legislators who are not convinced by the merit of the amendment. That’s because the bill is a federal regulation and will prevent states from setting their own individual statutes. The vast majority of states won’t have any issue with this, but California has been a leader in this area of chemical disclosure for several years with California Proposition 65. The lone stipulation that would enable state-level legislation outside of the federal bill is if the EPA grants a waiver for a specific case or there is an EPA review that is taking longer than three and a half years. For the most part, however, the federal regulation is a significant improvement and most people do expect the amendment to give the EPA a greater ability to protect public health.
Despite the removal of state-level authority, this TSCA reform appears to be a major win for those looking to protect their bodies. Now that the EPA is able to more stringently monitor and control the use of toxic substances, these substances are much less likely to come back and harm us. At this point, all that really remains to be seen is how much fiduciary power Congress is willing to allocate to the EPA.
What This Law Means to You
Toxic substances have long polluted our air, our drinking water, and even our homes and workplaces. By more effectively policing the use and distribution of potentially toxic substances, the EPA will finally be able to offer the type of environmental protection that the agency’s name has long implied. A cleaner environment will mean a greatly reduced chance of these toxins reaching your body. It’s no secret that the things that infiltrate our body can have a direct impact on wellness.[15, 16] Mitigating the risk of harmful substances is a major victory for public health — and that’s something we can all celebrate!
- “III. Properties, Manufacture, and Uses of Formaldehyde.” Occupational Safety & Health Administration. United States Department of Labor, 7 May 1992. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “What You Should Know about Formaldehyde.” ATSDR. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10 June 2011. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Facts about Chlorine.” CDC. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Chlorine.” ATSDR. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 22 June 2016.
- White, Carl W., and James G. Martin. “Chlorine Gas Inhalation: Human Clinical Evidence of Toxicity and Experience in Animal Models.” Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society. American Thoracic Society, 2010. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Chlorine Poisoning: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 7 June 2016. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Fluorine.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 11 Apr. 2016. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Fluorides, Hydrogen Fluoride, and Fluorine.” ATSDR. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Hydrogen Fluoride (as F).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 04 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Waste, Chemical, and Cleanup Enforcement.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 7 Jan. 2016. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Servicing Industrial Chemical Use with Chemical Management.” EPA. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “How to Access the TSCA Inventory.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 1 June 2016. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Regulatory Information by Topic: Toxic Substances.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 22 June 2016. Web. 22 June 2016.
- Institute of Medicine (US). Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment: A New Vision of Environmental Health for the 21st Century. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 3, Human Health and the Natural Environment.
- “Environmental Health.” Healthy People 2020. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 21 June 2016. Web. 22 June 2016.