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Forty years later, toxic chemical control act is finally updated

The bipartisan legislation updates the rules for tens of thousands of chemicals and standardizes safety standards governing the chemical industry.

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President Obama, pictured here on Sunday, is expected to sign an overhaul of the current rules overseeing the chemical industry on Wednesday.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

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President Obama is expected to sign new chemical rules Wednesday, 40 years after the previous regulations had been set. 

The bipartisan legislation updated rules for tens of thousands of everyday chemicals as well as setting safety standards for more dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde, asbestos, and styrene. The bill will also set a nationwide standard to govern the $800 billion-per-year industry, the Associated Press reports. 

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The bill updates the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which was criticized for being outdated and unenforceable. It was the only environmental law that had never been updated, and was largely viewed as ineffective, evidenced by the EPA's failed efforts to restrict the use of asbestos under the act in 1991.

Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2014 that the TSCA was outdated and left the EPA with little recourse to take action until a chemical was found to cause harm.

"The way TSCA was developed, it’s mostly a reporting mechanism," he said. "Industry uses its own information even if it’s no information when they are reporting to the EPA that they have this chemical."

The new bill gives the EPA deadline-based, written guidance on how and when to act, and it limits companies' use of propriety claims to avoid disclosing chemical recipes, which prevented the EPA from completely evaluating the chemicals. 

This is a major difference from the current conditions, as Dr. Krimsky described. 

"Depending upon EPA staffing and how much time they have, they can review these things," he said. "But if they don’t, then they’ll take a very cursory look at it, and they will let it through. That’s why we see many, many chemicals in this system that don’t have adequate toxicological information." 

The bill, which Congress spent more than three years working on, passed the Senate in a rare voice vote, as it was supported by members of both parties.

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Business groups had sought to eliminate the complexity of dealing with uneven state regulations, and although the bill gives the EPA more authority, it was supported by most Republicans. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky was a vocal opponent of the bill, saying it was a "sweeping federal takeover of chemical regulation" which should have been left to the states.

On the other hand, some environmental groups raised concerns that it did not go far enough to regulate toxic chemicals. 

Lawmakers from both parties will join President Obama for the ceremony Wednesday. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the bill is an outlier in today's political climate.

"Any time you see Democrats and Republicans come together on a piece of legislation, it does reflect a measure of compromise, which means that there may be some people who will criticize it because it's not perfect," Mr. Earnest said.

The American Chemistry Council, one of the bill's vocal backers, said described the bill as bringing "chemical regulation into the 21st century."