The system regulating the U.S. chemical industry is polluted; but safety advocates, consumers and conscious businesses saw a sliver of light on Wednesday as the Senate took an important first step toward legislative reform.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee endorsed the Safe Chemicals Act, which would be the first change to federal chemicals regulation since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Passed in 1976, the Environmental Working Group (EGW) refers to TSCA as one of the weakest U.S. environmental laws, doing very little to protect the environment or Americans’ health.

“What we find now is whether it’s PCBs or phthalates or flame retardants, the chemical ends up everywhere—in our dust, in our water, in our food, in our bodies, in polar bears, in whales,” said Heather White, EWG’s chief of staff and general counsel. “And then we say, ‘Wait, something is wrong, tell us about this chemical.’ The [Safe Chemicals Act] would set that right. The companies would need to show the chemical is safe.”

Though this was just the first stage in a long, difficult process that will require votes on the Senate floor and action in the House of Representatives, it helped to build strong momentum for TSCA reform, said White.

According to the EWG, if passed, the bill would:

  • Ensure that all chemicals in the market pose a “reasonable certainty of no harm,” considered the gold standard for protecting children, and accounting for all chemical exposures. 
  • Require all manufacturers to justify all claims of business confidentiality on chemicals and ensure that first responders and public safety personnel can access important safety information. 
  • Require new chemicals to be screened before used in the marketplace. 
  • Protect states’ ability to pass stronger laws.

The paradigm shift

The Safe Chemicals Act would require manufacturers to prove that a chemical is safe before it enters the market, which is much different from the current system. This reform would have the biggest effect on corporations. 

“Shifting the burden of proof and requiring companies to prove safety, as opposed to consumers or government proving harm, is a huge paradigm shift that is going to turn the chemical industry on its head,” said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund.

In addition, the government’s evaluation of “safety” also could change with new legislation. Rather than relying on the classic risk assessment approach—which looks at a hazard plus exposure—the Safe Chemicals Act considers aggregate exposure. This is relevant because of the number of chemicals Americans are exposed to daily and because research shows that even low-dose exposure can be dangerous, said Nudelman.

Though some manufacturers have made important changes to formulating and marketing, many more have resisted reform—and will continue to do so until enforced by the government, Nudelman said. She pointed out the plastic and food packaging industries as two of the least modernized industries, which have adopt practices that are significantly better for health and environment.