Critics of the US Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 viewed the law as a flawed piece of regulation that did little to safeguard people and the environment from toxic chemicals since it passed in 1976. The law sat on the books for 40 years, leaving the Environmental Protection Agency with few powers to regulate chemicals. That changed in June 2016 with the passage of the Chemical Safety for the 21st Century - or Frank Lautenberg - Act, amending and strengthening that original piece of legislation.
Since the Great Lakes are so large and water gets flushed from the system slowly, long-lived chemicals like PCBs and DDT have a lot more time to build up in the food web – collecting in fish, birds, wildlife and sediments. The Great Lakes also have a history of intensive industrial activity that has served as a factor in the buildup of chemicals, and coupled with the long-range transportation of chemicals through the atmosphere they face a unique threat unless control programs are put in place to help.
Under the old TSCA law, the EPA was limited on what it could do. The government needed evidence that a specific chemical being used commercially posed a health risk before it could require testing, but without testing it was difficult to get that evidence.
Companies also could claim that their chemical products were trade secrets, which in turn kept local and state government officials, medical professionals and the public in the dark. It also left all 62,000 chemicals in commercial use prior to 1976 to stay on the market without being tested first. Also, while the EPA had the ability to review new chemicals for 90 days to see if they posed an “unreasonable risk” to public health before they entered the market, companies weren’t required to do any toxicity testing first to help the EPA in its review. In practice, The Washington Post reported that by 2015 only 200 chemicals were tested to see if they posed a risk, and only five chemicals or chemical groups were successfully restricted.
There are a slew of changes that give EPA new authority to regulate chemicals that didn’t exist under the old law. The agency is now required to evaluate chemicals already in commercial use, as well as new ones, against new safety standards that include considerations for vulnerable members of the population – including infants, children, the elderly and pregnant women.
For the Great Lakes region – which continues to deal with Areas of Concern and chemical pollution throughout the basin – the new law’s impact is still unknown.
Bradley Grams, federal chemical programs coordinator with EPA’s Region 5 office, said EPA is developing specific guidelines as the agency implements the new law. Those guidelines should fall under the existing 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s Chemicals of Mutual Concern annex.
As part of its implementation plan, the EPA needs to finalize a process to identify those high-priority chemicals the agency will evaluate, and identify its initial 10 chemicals for risk evaluation. The EPA plans to have the first 10 chemicals identified in mid-December, with assessment plans announced by June 2017.
The EPA has an email list set up for members of the public interested in receiving TSCA news and other chemical safety news alerts, and will take comments on proposed rules related to TSCA through the government’s regulations.gov website.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.