New Bill(s) Poised to Strengthen Chemical Regulation in 2016

Last month, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act — also known as the Udall-Vitter Bill — which is positioned to drastically overhaul the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and give the EPA new powers. If signed into law by the president, it would require an unprecedented analysis of chemicals (including workplace chemicals) to determine their safety and environmental impacts. Professionals working in the EHS space would stand to be impacted in a number of ways, but nearly all would see a movement toward on-the-job chemical replacement.

Both U.S. legislative bodies have recently been working in this direction. Back in June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a separate, similar chemical safety bill by an overwhelming 398-1 vote. This House bill was also intended to update the TSCA and to expand the EPA’s mandate to protect the public from toxic chemicals.

The new Senate bill was finally successful when Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) agreed to reverse her strong opposition to it, on the promise that the final version going to the president’s desk would be changed to align more closely with the House version. Specifically, Senator Boxer had expressed concern that language in the Senate bill would privilege new federal rules over state rules that might be more stringent. (Some state-level environmental entities have already said they believe the language in the Senate version blocks their ability to restrict chemicals.)

Increased workplace enforcement is clearly an intended part of the new legislation, at least for some industries. Bill co-sponsor Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) emphasizes that the bill is designed to protect “the most vulnerable among us — children, pregnant women, the elderly, and chemical workers.” [Our italics.] However, at the same time, some authors of the bill are clearly seeking to balance worker safety with the interests of industry. For example, the Senate amendments to the bill involved a provision requiring that the EPA “minimize the impacts of rules on small manufacturers and processors.”

How exactly all of this would be interpreted by enforcement bodies has, of course, yet to be clarified.

Despite these early-stage ambiguities, some version of this bill is likely to be passed into law in later this year. How can EHS professionals prepare for the changes this development will surely bring?

A great way is to review your use of hazardous chemicals in the workplace, and revisit the feasibility of replacing them with safer options or eliminating them entirely. Many big box retailers are already calling for their distributors to do this. In 2009, Walmart began calling for all suppliers to substitute certain hazardous chemical ingredients, and Target followed suit. Clearly, this trend isn’t going away. Consumers also are increasingly conscious about spending their dollars with businesses that support environmental protection and worker safety. If you haven’t already explored chemical substitution at your workplace, the approach of new rules later this year is a great reason to take the first step.