Today President Obama signed a bill into law that few ever thought would pass even though it affects the chemicals used in almost every product that consumers purchase. The law – the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – it is the most significant piece of environmental legislation to make it to the White House in his two terms.
For years, those on all sides of the chemical safety battle doubted that would ever become law. Yet, after decades of work, earlier this month, the Act passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan majorities.
Congress was hammered by constituents and activists and scientists who presented endless testimony about the hazards of chemicals, including the fact that of the 90,000 or more substances that are in use, only about 200 have ever been comprehensively tested for health and safety implications.
There are many positive aspects of the law, but public health experts worry about loopholes, such as the length of time the Environmental Protection Agency has been given to take action on some substances like asbestos. Some experts believe people will continue to be sickened or die from exposure during this interim.
Linda Reinstein, head of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, heralds the new law but worries about its shortcomings.
“Under this legislation, the EPA may take as long as seven years to assess, regulate, and ban asbestos in America. To the chemical industry, this unnecessary delay is about maximizing dollars and cents . . . the true cost of delay will be measured in lives,” said Reinstein, the president and co-founder of the asbestos education organization.
In comments at the bill signing, Obama acknowledged that the use of asbestos- as lethal as it is – is still legal in the U.S. Most other major countries have banned its use.
Reinstein and members of her organization have worked with lawmakers for years to get an asbestos ban through Congress. She estimates that 100,000 Americans will lose their lives to asbestos-related diseases during that seven-year timeline and countless more could be needlessly exposed to asbestos.
The law outlines a tight schedule for EPA action on newly proposed chemicals and requires industry to pick up some of the cost of testing and evaluation. It also clearly gives EPA the authority to make needed changes to regulations for asbestos and other dangerous substances, but will it have the will?
For example, the agency has long had the ability to warn tens of millions of homeowners that their houses may be tainted with death-causing asbestos contaminated vermiculite from a mine in Libby, Montana. However, the agency’s political leaders have ignored the urging of a public warning from its front line scientists and health experts but have done nothing.
Lautenberg’s bill replaced the 50-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, which had not been updated in decades.
The new law has hundreds of provisions which, if fully implemented, would save lives. Consider this: the law requires that EPA must first determine that a chemical is safe before allowing it to be produced for sale.
It demands that regulators pay utmost attention to chemicals that are highly toxic, a known human carcinogen and those which bioaccumulate in the body. And it also calls for risks to children, pregnant women, the elderly, and workers to be thoroughly and immediately examined.
The legislative process was both unique and ugly.
Traditional enemies like environmentalists and chemical industry lobbyists joined to get the complex statutes passed, while Democrats squabbled, stalled and bickered endlessly among themselves.
Richard Denison, senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, who worked hard for the legislation, described the bill as giving no one everything they want, but giving something to everyone.