The split surfaced at a Senate hearing about the latest version of a bill, introduced by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), that would update a 35-year-old law regulating chemicals found in everything from water bottles to crib mattresses. For the first time, the measure would require chemical companies to prove that their products are safe and would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict those that are not.
Restrictions now imposed on the EPA are so tight that it has required testing on only 200 of the roughly 80,000 chemicals registered in the United States and banned five. Consumer advocates and some large chemical companies agree that the law needs to be updated, but gaining bipartisan support in Congress has proved tricky, in part because the chemical industry has resisted major changes.
The American Chemistry Council — which represents the nation’s biggest chemical makers, including Dow, DuPont and Exxon Mobil Chemical — said the most recent version of the bill is not good enough.
“Today, we are discussing a bill that remains very similar to the bill introduced in 2010, which we consider unworkable,” said Calvin Dooley, the group’s president and chief executive, referring to an earlier version of the legislation.
Showing more enthusiasm for the latest bill was the Consumer Specialty Products Association, which represents big firms that sell directly to consumers, including Procter & Gamble and SC Johnson. The association recognizes that its “consumer-facing” companies must instill public confidence in their products, said Robert Matthews, an attorney who represents the group.
Matthews stopped short of endorsing the legislation, citing member company concerns about protecting confidential data, but he said that they recognize the need to provide useful information to the EPA about the chemicals they use.
“I believe we’ve made progress,” Matthews said. “We still have a ways to go.”
At the hearing, Lautenberg ticked off the efforts taken to address the industry’s concerns. The Senate has held five hearings in the past two years to explore chemical safety issues, he said. Lautenberg solicited input from Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works subcommittee. Together, they arranged 10 meetings this summer with industry groups and other stakeholders.
Lautenberg has offered different versions of his bill in every Congress since 2005.
Under Lautenberg’s measure, the EPA would screen all the chemicals it regulates and flag those that raise safety concerns. Depending on how serious the concerns are, the chemical companies would need to do further testing to prove that their products are safe or immediately take action to reduce the risk.
One of the American Chemistry Council’s main problems with the proposal is that it calls for the assessment of a chemical’s aggregate risk, meaning that the EPA would have to analyze the public’s exposure to a chemical from all possible sources, not just one.
For instance, Dooley said, chlorine can be found in the varnish on a desk or in a semiconductor in a phone. A company that has a new application for chlorine may not be able to move forward if the aggregate risk from the combined uses of chlorine exceeds what the EPA considers a safe threshold. That would curb innovation, he said. Dooley said his group wants reform but needs much more time to sort through the issues.
But several Democrats chafed at ACC’s arguments and the request for more time. They said the group has consistently characterized various versions of the measure as deeply flawed without offering alternatives.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) questioned the ACC’s stated support for reform. “If the industry truly believes that, then you need to come forward with what you believe is necessary. . . . If your objective is to defeat the legislation, then I understand what you’re doing.
“This doesn’t work, that doesn’t work,” Cardin said. “What works?”
Lisa Jackson, EPA’s administrator, has previously said her agency lacks the tools needed to regulate high-risk chemicals. The Government Accountability Office has called the nation’s current chemical safety law a “high risk.” And the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has discovered 212 chemicals “coursing through Americans’ bodies,” Lautenberg said.
Several states have banned certain chemicals in consumer products, citing health concerns. The Consumer Product Safety Commission cited similar concerns when it banned some types of chemicals used in children’s products starting in 2009. Also, the Food and Drug Administration is investing in research on the health impact of bisphenol A, a chemical widely used in plastics.