Federal lawmakers this week passed one of the most important environmental bills that will overhaul how the U.S. government regulates toxic chemicals, and it could bring the nation closer to banning asbestos.
The U.S. Senate passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which amends the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1979. The bill will give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greater power to better review chemicals for safety and restrict their use.
One of the reasons asbestos is not banned in the U.S. is because the current law requires the EPA to find the “least burdensome” way for the industry to control asbestos - an unsurmountable task for the regulatory agency given its current restrictions. The latest proposal eliminates that provision.
Move Now, Awareness Group Says
Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), issued a press release stating the proposed legislation will give the EPA “clear authority to ban asbestos, a known human carcinogen for which there is no safe level of exposure.”
However, Reinstein warns that if the bill is signed into law, it may still take seven years for the EPA to assess, regulate and ban the deadly mineral.
“An estimated 100,000 Americans will lose their lives to asbestos-related diseases during that 7-year timeline and countless more could be needlessly exposed to asbestos,” she said.
Asbestos exposure is the leading cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 people in the U.S. annually. Breathing the toxic mineral also causes lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses.
The ADAO calls for quick action on the asbestos crisis.
“The EPA must limit delay by including asbestos in the list of the first chemicals it evaluates and quickly exercising its authority under this legislation to ban asbestos,” Reinstein said. “Until a complete ban is in place, asbestos will be found in construction materials, automobile parts, and even children's toys.”
Bill Increases EPA Leverage
The bill is named after the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a public-health advocate who banned smoking on all domestic airline flights in 1989.
Also known as S.697, the bill allows the EPA to:
- Evaluate new and existing chemicals using a new risk-based safety standard that includes vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women.
- Impose clear and enforceable deadlines on chemical manufacturers.
- Impose more rigorous public disclosure and transparency on chemical manufacturers.
- Receive additional funding to carry out its new responsibilities.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved the bill in 2015, and lawmakers expect President Barack Obama will sign the legislation as early as next week.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May also committed to bring Canada closer to banning asbestos.
Bipartisan Legislation Concerns Some Democrats
While the White House and top Democrats support the bill, other high-ranking Democrats feel the bipartisan text may limit states that already act more progressively against toxic substances.
California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont already regulate chemicals aggressively.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, all fought for the bill to include language enabling states to maintain their current chemical legislation if it's more stringent than the new federal guidelines.
The legislation now includes a proposal grandfathering state laws in place before April 22 to trump federal law. Meanwhile, development of new state regulations would be allowed in tandem with development of federal rules.
States with limited chemical regulation would follow the new federal standard.
Pelosi, Hoyer and Pallone issued a statement saying the measure “is not the bill Democrats would have written on our own, but it is a long overdue step forward to protect families and communities from toxic substances.”
The White House issued a similar sentiment: “The bill is a clear improvement over the current TSCA and represents a historic advancement for both chemical safety and environmental law.”
Environmental Defense Fund Lauds Legislation
On the day the Senate approved the bill, Environmental Defense Fund lead senior scientist Richard Denison said “today's vote is a historic victory for public health.”
While Denison admits the legislation misses the mark in some ways, he says “it fixes the biggest problems with our current law by requiring safety reviews for chemicals in use today, mandating greater scrutiny of new chemicals before they can be sold, and removing barriers that prevented the EPA from banning asbestos and other harmful chemicals.”
For the ADAO, the legislation opens the way for immediate action.
“We can't afford to wait another year, another month, another day,” Reinstein said.