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Life After TSCA Reform: State Laws Remain Vital For Public Health

This week the US Senate finished up the job of passing a major overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – the federal law regulating toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, Congress failed to give American families, consumers, and health-affected communities what they desperately want: assurance that toxic chemicals in consumer products won’t harm their health. That’s why state governments, environmental health watchdogs, and everyday individuals will continue to play a vital role in protecting health from harmful chemicals.

While the chemical industry and many product manufacturers celebrate the new TSCA, environmental health and consumer groups recognize it for what it is –a win for Big Chem and a loss for public health.

The new law does make some improvements by requiring chemical testing and making it easier for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to restrict harmful chemicals. But the timelines and pace for federal action are very slow –up to 14 years before EPA has to restrict a chemical.

Before TSCA reform, residents could count on states to provide protection from toxic chemicals if EPA action was too slow or if EPA failed to act. The states passed strong laws and beat the chemical industry again and again. In the past three decades, 38 states passed over 250 laws that were stronger than federal standards. 

But the new TSCA handcuffs states. It blocks them from passing restrictions on chemicals for up to four years once EPA begins studying a high priority chemical. The chemical industry made this provision one of their bottom lines and it’s not surprising. Four years is a lot of time to profit from millions of pounds of toxic chemicals that end up in our products, homes, bodies, and environment.

Four years is also a lot of time for kids to be exposed to harmful chemicals, for more and more people to experience diseases linked to toxic chemical exposure, and for the health of waterways and wildlife to decline. It’s too long. This is why state governments, citizens, and watchdogs must continue to act to protect public health from toxic threats.

State laws that require consumer product makers to disclose the toxic chemicals in their products will continue to be critical sources of information for policymakers and consumers. States should expand these laws to require disclosure for more consumer products and more chemicals.

States must continue enforcing existing toxics laws that residents have come to rely on to keep them safe. State restrictions on chemicals like lead toxic flame retardants, and phthalates,have given consumers confidence that products are safer, resulted in nation-wide phase outs in the marketplace, and even driven the federal government to act.

For Washington, the state will be able to implement the new flame retardant law, including banning additional toxic flame retardants, thanks to a provision in the new law negotiated by our allies at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Chemicals not covered by TSCA include those used in cosmetics, additives and food packaging. These products are used everyday by consumers and states can and should take action when necessary.

There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market today. TSCA reform still allows for state action when EPA fails or takes too long to regulate. States must step in to push the federal government to act and, when necessary and to keep pressure on EPA, pass their own laws to protect their residents and environment like they have for 30 years.

TSCA may not be all that we hoped, but TSCA reform happened because all of us demanded stronger toxics laws in our communities, states, and at the federal level. This progress can’t end and won’t.