Skip to main content

Government watchdog says our chemical law is a hot mess

Last week, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided compelling evidence that our federal law on toxic chemicals, the 37 year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is in terrible shape and doing a disservice to Americans’ health.

The news was delivered last Thursday during a House hearing on TSCA. While it’s not hard to find critics on all sides of the issue, GAO’s summary may be the most convincing because the independent government watchdog funded by Congress has no political axe to grind.

Some insiders are saying the House Energy and Commerce committee held the hearing to get a chance to weigh in on the recently introduced Chemical Safety Improvement Act. This Senate bill is backed by a bipartisan group of senators that aim to reform our federal law on toxic chemicals, but as drafted falls short of what’s needed to get our chemical safety system back on track. Currently, there is no House version of TSCA reform introduced.

The GAO is no ‘Johnny Come Lately’ and has been looking at TSCA for a long time. There are many gaping problems with our federal laws on toxic chemicals, but the first two GAO discussed this week are:

(1) EPA’s inability to get timely information on chemicals that could be a problem and

(2) EPA’s virtual inability to ban or limit problem chemicals.

Here’s how GAO put it:

  • On obtaining adequate information on chemical toxicity and exposure:EPA has found it difficult to obtain such information because TSCA does not require companies to provide it; instead, TSCA requires EPA to demonstrate that chemicals pose certain risks before it can ask for such information.”
  • On banning or limiting chemicals: “EPA has had difficulty demonstrating that chemicals should be banned or have limits placed on their production… The agency issued regulations to ban or limit production or use of five existing chemicals, or chemical classes, out of tens of thousands of chemicals listed for commercial use. A court reversal of EPA’s 1989 asbestos rule illustrates the difficulties EPA has had in issuing regulations to control existing chemicals.”

Some critics say those problems could persist under the Chemical Safety Improvement Act as currently conceived, because the bill lacks deadlines and funding. Our coalition is eager to work with offices in both the House and Senate, to make the necessary changes to legislation to get our chemical safety
laws ready for prime time.

Urge your Senator to strengthen the bill today. We are calling for: protections for vulnerable populations; state’s ability to regulate; timelines; fast action on the worst chemicals; and priorities based on adequate information.