The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976

Apr 28, 2016

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was enacted in 1976 and is administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Act mandates the EPA to protect the public from “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment” by regulating the manufacture and sale of chemicals. EPA does so in a permissive fashion, that is, it uses its discretion to review certain applications for distribution and sale of chemicals when they are submitted by manufacturers.

Under the terms of the original law, some 60,000 chemical substances already in market circulation were assumed, for regulatory purposes, to be safe. The EPA was empowered to launch reviews of such substances as PCBs, mercury and lead, which were suspected of being toxic and threatening to human health. However, all but a relative handful of commercial chemicals were, for practical purposes, exempt from review and regulation.

TSCA has been roundly and severly criticized by scientists and academics, non-governmental organizations and government agencies for failing to effectively regulate the use of chemicals affecting human health and the environment. Since its adoption in 1976, the Act has not been substantially updated. In 2013, Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and David Vitter (R-LA) introduced the Chemical Safety Improvement Act in an attempt to amend and strengthen TSCA. The ensuing debate revealed the deep flaws in both the original TSCA and the proposed reform measure, particularly in the area of worker safety and transparency. The Freedom Industries chemical spill in Charleston, WV in 2014 brought these flaws to general public attention, and CSIA failed to reach the floor of the Senate for a vote.

In 2015, Sen Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced what is commonly referred to as the Lautenberg Bill (in memory of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg) as the most recent attempt to modernize TSCA. This bill passed the Senate in December 2015, following on the approval by the House last summer of the TSCA Modernization Act of 2015. The two bills are in the process of reconciliation in a conference committee as of April 2016.

Further information on the scope and history of the Toxic Substances Control Act and the efforts to reform it:

  • An extensive but accessible article in Wikipedia describes the legislative and regulatory history and philosophy of TSCA, including a comparison of the American and European approaches to regulation. This is an important issue as the US and the European Union are in negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aims to gut the EU’s use of the precautionary principle as its regulatory foundation.
  • The Environmental Defense Fund’s Health Blog features an ongoing discussion of the current Congressional reform efforts, which identifies the scientific, regulatory and enforcement, and political controversies in play.

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