Embracing the bumpy road to chemical safety
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Not everything about the federal government is seized by partisan gridlock. A major new program directed by the Environmental Protection Agency remains on course, cheering both environmentalists and industry executives. The program, which strengthens federal regulation of thousands of widely used chemicals, met its June deadline for deciding how to assess those chemicals. Now it needs enough money from Congress to keep going.

The initiative is the product of a law, enacted a year ago, named for the former Democratic senator who championed it, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. It was designed to replace a confusing patchwork of state regulations and retailer restrictions on chemicals. For the first time in decades, the EPA will decide which chemicals are safe and which are toxic in order to provide confidence and clarity to the American consumer. Ten chemicals have been teed up to get the process started.

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The program has its detractors, of course, and implementation will take years; some 10,000 chemicals used by both consumers and industry are destined for examination. But even President Trump, who has proposed to cut EPA funding deeply, wants to increase funding for the office in charge of managing the program.

A lot of work needs to be done to restore trust in the U.S.’s chemical management system. While some states like California keep close tabs on chemical safety, others are essentially hands off. At the federal level, a former statute was so weak that the EPA couldn’t limit the use of a single chemical on the market for more than 30 years.

The next steps are many. For example, the EPA plans this summer to release a list of proposed fees on chemical manufacturers to help pay for the effort. In addition, lawmakers must still appropriate the funds requested by President Trump to keep the operation underway. And a battle royal is expected in Congress over how sharply to reduce other EPA spending that supports and supplements the office’s efforts.

While some industry executives and environmental activists decry a few elements of the new law’s implementation, a rare consensus has formed about the direction the law itself is taking. Industry groups ranging from the American Chemistry Council to the Consumer Specialty Products Association, which I head, supported the law. At the other end of the spectrum, the Environmental Defense Fund “remains confident that the law is strong and can and will ultimately deliver on its promises,” according to Richard Denison, a senior lead scientist there.

The EPA has provided a snapshot of how it intends to prioritize and evaluate chemicals in commercial use. Now the hard work of analyzing those chemicals is beginning. Congress needs to appropriate the necessary funding to fully enable EPA to get the job done. It’s important that this program is not diminished directly or indirectly as Congress begins the process of determining how to alter the EPA’s budget.

In the meantime, chemical makers are willing to pay their share to help offset the costs of EPA review. And for good reason. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the chemical products sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the U.S., to a tune of more than $387 billion a year. Industry is depending on EPA to evaluate new and existing chemicals so it can bring the innovative products that consumers demand to the marketplace. Those products mean jobs and economic growth. Implementing the Lautenberg Act won’t be easy, but nothing of consequence ever is. 

Steve Caldeira is President and CEO of the Consumer Specialty Products Association based in Washington, D.C.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.