Obama Enacts New Chemical Regulations: What Do Changes Mean?

President Obama signs new legislation regulating 64,000 chemicals.

BySERENA MARSHALL & JOHN PARKINSON
June 22, 2016, 6:58 PM

— -- In a sweeping reform bill that could potentially affect everything from household cleaners to furniture and clothing, President Obama authorized legislation directing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate tens of thousands of dangerous chemicals, including asbestos, chromium, BPA and formaldehyde.

Signing H.R. 2576, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law today, President Obama said the measure is proof that bipartisan cooperation is possible, even in divided government.

“I want the American people to know that this is proof that even in the current polarized political climate here in Washington, things can work. It's possible,” the president said. “If we can get this bill done, you know, it means that somewhere out there on the horizon we can make our politics less toxic as well.”

The bipartisan bill, which passed unanimously earlier this month, updates the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act for the first time since it was enacted and gives the agency authority over 64,000 chemicals. It's the first change to a national environmental statute in 20 years.

“For the first time in our history, we'll actually be able to regulate chemicals effectively,” Obama said. “This is a really significant piece of business.”

WHAT IS IT?

The legislation sets new safety standards for chemicals -- many of which have ties to cancer, infertility and mental health issues.

It also allows the EPA to test for safety in existing and all new chemicals. Once they deem something risky, they can regulate its use.

But don’t expect all those chemicals to be reviewed at once. Overall, the process will be fairly slow, examining just 20 chemicals at a time with a seven-year deadline per chemical.

WHY DIDN’T THEY DO THIS BEFORE?

The original bill planned to regulate many chemicals, but after a lawsuit, the EPA’s ban on asbestos was overturned.

The agency has been stuck in a “Catch-22” to show potential risks before allowing testing, but the legislation bars the EPA from considering cost-benefit analysis when evaluating for safety.

"For the first time in 40 years, the United States of America will have a chemical safety program that works,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said. “And protects families from dangerous chemicals in their daily lives."

NOT EVERYONE IS HAPPY

While the bill does update the authority of the EPA, not everyone thinks the new legislation goes far enough to protect consumers, including how long it will take to evaluate the chemicals.

“No one in the public health community asked for a toxics bill that is 'better than current law,' because that law is so feeble it failed under industry challenge to ban a substance as deadly as asbestos,” Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook said in a statement on behalf of the research and advocacy organization.

“What we need is a law that aggressively protects people, especially children, on an urgent basis from the thousands of toxic chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, nervous system disorders and other problems. This law simply will not accomplish that commonsense goal.”

Some environmental groups are also concerned the bill doesn’t give the EPA enough authority when dealing with imported products, to require they are notified when the chemical’s use changes and is in an imported product.

HOW WILL IT AFFECT ME?

The bill affects nearly every product in and outside the home, from car seats, carpets and water bottles, to toys and zippers. By making the research public, consumers can make better decisions for their own families. The law specifically requires protections for those who are more susceptible, such as children and pregnant women; as well as those disproportionately exposed, such as certain industry workers.

The president added that Americans “should have the confidence to know that the laundry detergent we buy isn't going to make us sick, the mattresses our babies sleep on aren't going to harm them.”

“I'm absolutely confident that we can regulate toxic chemicals in a way that's both good for our families and ultimately good for business and our economy because nobody can innovate better than folks here in this country and our businesses,” he said.

The EPA is prioritizing the worst offender chemicals first.

Once the agency rules on a chemical, their decision will preempt any state laws. But existing state laws are grandfathered in.

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