WASHINGTON — Chemical companies would need to provide more health and safety information about their products and regulators would have more authority to force harmful substances off the market under legislation approved along party lines Wednesday by a Senate committee.
With research increasingly linking toxic chemicals to cancer, learning disabilities and other health problems, the vote represented a symbolic victory in a decades-long effort to keep troublesome compounds out of furniture, toys, cosmetics, electronics and other household products.
The Safe Chemicals Act would be the first overhaul of federal chemical law since 1976, but majority Democrats acknowledged the bill likely will not advance further without at least some bipartisan support. Every Republican senator on the Environment and Public Works Committee opposed the measure.
Sponsoring Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced versions of the legislation every year since 2005. Democrats revived the bill following a Tribune investigative series published in May about toxic flame retardants, many of which remain on the market despite studies that link them to health problems.
In an attempt to garner more votes, Lautenberg pared back several of the bill's toughest provisions. One of the biggest concessions was language allowing chemical companies to keep putting new products on the market without thorough safety testing, though the Environmental Protection Agency would get more authority to screen chemicals and require studies of potential health effects.
If research raised concerns about a chemical, the legislation would make it easier to force companies to stop making the product.
"Too many toxic chemicals end up in everyday consumer products, and too many of our children are born with untested industrial chemicals in their bodies," said Lautenberg, citing support from more than 300 groups of physicians, scientists, public health advocates and environmental organizations. "This legislation establishes a strong but practical system for guaranteeing the safety of chemicals, and that will protect American families."
Republicans said that calling for a vote now disrupted behind-the-scenes negotiations on a new version of the bill. Industry lobbyists have suggested some changes in those meetings but have stopped short of going through the bill line by line as Democrats urged them to do.
Opponents declined to submit alternatives publicly, other than a short amendment that Democrats said would tangle the EPA in bureaucratic knots and lead to further delays in chemical screenings. That proposal failed on a party-line vote.
"Everybody agrees we need … reform," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who has been negotiating with Lautenberg for months on a potential compromise. "But I think this is a step backward."
After the vote, the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that spent $10.3 million on lobbying last year, issued a statement calling the bill "fundamentally flawed in many critical areas."
The group opposes the proposed safety standard for chemicals and said provisions requiring more public information about compounds would "undermine long-standing protections of trade secrets, seriously hampering innovations in new products and technologies."
Lautenberg's bill would revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that gives the government little power to assess or limit dangers from industrial chemicals. Citing loopholes in the law, the EPA acknowledges that it knows little, if anything, about the safety of most of the 84,000 industrial compounds in commercial use in the U.S.
Neither regulators nor consumers can tell what specific substances are used in many products, meaning it can take years for independent scientists to identify chemicals, track them in the environment and determine if they cause harm.
"EPA has not been living up to what the American public expects," James Jones, the agency's top chemical safety official, told the Senate panel at a hearing Tuesday. "But a good deal of that has to do with the challenges that the law creates for us."
A growing list of critics — including the nation's leading group of pediatricians and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress — have called for a dramatic overhaul.
"A lot of folks have worked hard to find middle ground," said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund who has been working on the issue for years. "This bill is an important step that places the burden on chemical companies to prove their products are safe, rather than on the EPA to prove they are unsafe."
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