A new year, but the same unworkable Safe Chemicals Act

Capitol Hill was a busy place last week. Major issues like the federal budget, gun control and immigration were dominating the headlines. One thing many people may have missed was the introduction of the “Safe Chemicals Act of 2013” (SCA), a bill that seeks to make changes to the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The tepid attention on the bill’s introduction reflects not only the competition for air time, but also the fact that the SCA of 2013 is just a rehash of the flawed bills we’ve seen in the past.

Before explaining some of the bill’s flaws, let me say that updating TSCA is ACC’s top priority. To be clear, it is not in the interest of our members for the federal chemical regulatory system to be perceived as weak and ineffective. It creates a dynamic where misinformation about the safety of chemicals can spread rampantly, and fear and misinformation can be easily exploited.

At the same time, Americans should know that chemicals in use today ARE regulated. More than a dozen federal laws and six federal agencies govern the production and use of chemicals. The U.S. EPA has broad authority, and uses it, to evaluate and regulate chemicals. For example, the Agency has taken regulatory action such as restrictions or labeling requirements more than 2600 times. Assertions by some that chemicals go virtually unregulated today are simply not true.

Our support for reform is not in question. In fact, we share many of the goals of the SCA’s sponsors: we agree that Americans deserve to know that chemicals are safe for their intended uses; we all believe the public should have more access to chemical safety information; and we agree that today’s TSCA is cumbersome in places and needs to be improved to make it easier for EPA to take action.

But while we respect the commitment of the bill’s sponsors to this important issue, the SCA is not the right way to reform TSCA. The SCA would make chemical regulation more confusing and less effective by imposing impractical requirements that would be impossible for EPA to meet. The ultimate result would be a system that doesn’t work, meaning that Americans are no better off.

There are numerous examples of a flawed approach in the SCA, but I’ll mention just a few:

1.      Its proposed prioritization system is unclear and circuitous, and frankly doesn’t make much sense. We need a straightforward system to prioritize chemicals based on transparent criteria and real-world uses. This will allow EPA to focus its efforts on those chemicals where there is highest level of concern.

2.      The SCA would eliminate important protections for intellectual property and impede innovation and growth by U.S. companies. In particular, the bill would severely restrict a manufacturer’s ability to protect the identity of chemicals they have developed. A chemical’s name can be highly descriptive and can provide a precise roadmap to competitors. It makes sense that EPA would have access to this information, but it defies logic that the identity of a new chemical innovation should be publicly published for all to see. These kind of shortsighted requirements are exactly the reason why a company could be enticed into moving its research and product development overseas.

3.      The bill’s safety standard is just plain unworkable – there’s no other way to say it. The SCA would require that manufacturers prove that there is “reasonable certainty of no harm” from aggregate exposure to the chemical. This is a zero risk standard that would essentially mean manufacturers would have to prove no harm under any circumstance. Common sense allows that certain substances just shouldn’t be used in certain ways, in certain concentrations or at certain frequencies, but when used properly they can be used safely.

4.      Last, and to be filed in the “are you kidding me” file, in an effort to meet the bill’s safety standard, manufacturers would be required to conduct an aggregate exposure assessment of every chemical they produce, meaning they must review every human and environmental exposure from every possible source (including naturally occurring sources) and evaluate all uses including industrial, commercial, and consumer uses and even the uses of their competitors’ products to illustrate that there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm” from aggregate exposure. All this information would then have to be turned over to EPA, and the agency would have to review ALL that information to make a safety determination. EPA’s chemical review program would collapse under its own weight.

There is a better way to reform TSCA. We believe that Senator David Vitter (R-LA) is developing a balanced solution that will keep Americans safe and our economy growing. While many are working hard to dismiss Sen. Vitter’s bill before it’s even introduced, we would hope that those who are serious about reform would reserve judgment until they’ve read it.

When there is a fresh, rational approach on the table, no one will work harder than ACC to make it a reality.

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