Safe Chemicals Act gets committee nod

Legislation to raise the bar for federal approval of chemicals, proposed by democratic N.J. Sen. R. Frank Lautenberg, passed the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee earlier today.

If ultimately passed by the full legislature, it would update the 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act. Basically, it changes the presumption of substance innocence, if you will. It would require manufacturers to prove their chemicals are safe before being allowed to use them, instead of requiring that the chemicals have to be proven harmful before they can be banned.

Proponents praised the vote, which nevertheless signals a tough battle ahead because it was split along party lines, with every Republican member voting against it.

“Americans today moved one step closer to the chemical protections we deserve," said the Natural Resources Defense Council's Daniel Rosenberg, director of its toxic chemical reform project. "For the first time since 1976, comprehensive TSCA reform has been voted out of a committee. This sets the stage for the Senate to finally give the Environmental Protection Agency the tools it needs to protect all of us from toxic chemicals found in products we use every day."

You can read his full blog post here.

Lautenberg said the vote was "a major milestone in our effort to fix America’s broken system for regulating toxic chemicals.”  In a statement released by his office, he said, "Children and families could be in danger from everyday consumer products, and the U.S. Government is virtually powerless to do anything to make sure that the chemicals used in products are safe. For too long, the chemical industry has deceived the public and the government about the safety of their products. They have ripped a page out of the tobacco industry’s playbook. Today we are saying ‘game over’ – it’s time to protect the public health.”

In particular, discussion withing the committee focused on an excellent recent Chicago Tribune series, "Playing with Fire," about the hazards of flame retardant chemicals added to furnishings, electronics, baby products and other household items. KIt also focused on how the industry engaged in a "deceptive" campaign to promote the use of flema retardants.

The Trib's Michael Hawthorne has been following the fallout, and in this morning's paper he said the world's leading manufacturers of flame retardants "faced scathing criticism from U.S. senators angered by what they called the industry's misuse of science, misleading testimony and creation of a phony consumer group that stoked the public's fear of house fires."

He also quoted Marshall Moore, director of technology, advocacy and marketing for Philadelphia-based Chemtura Corp. "As a scientist and also as a father, I think in terms of looking at the risk of fires versus other risks in society. We can't forget the risk of fires," he said.

The industry has said the chemicals are safe.

 According to a press release from Lautenberg, the act would:

• Require manufacturers to develop and submit safety data for each chemical they produce, while avoidingduplicative or unnecessary testing.

 • Prioritize chemicals based on risk, so that EPA can focus resources on evaluating those most likely to cause harm while working through the backlog of untested existing chemicals.

• Place the burden of proof on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of their chemicals.

• Restrict uses of chemicals that cannot be proven safe.

• Establish a public database to catalog the information submitted by chemical manufacturers and the EPA’s safety determinations.

• Promote innovation and development of safe chemical alternatives, and bring some new chemicals onto the market using an expedited review process.