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The Obama administration wants to strengthen federal oversight and regulation of toxic chemicals, citing public and scientific worries about the health and environmental effects of the compounds used in making everything from cars to clothing and even food and water containers.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson laid out a broad set of principles last night she said she hoped would guide Congress as it prepares to tackle an overhaul of the 33-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, which critics consider virtually toothless and ineffective. You can read her speech here and a story about her announcement here that I wrote in The Baltimore Sun today. Other accounts here and here.

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The move to address toxic chemicals nationally comes as environmental and health advocates regionally have expressed concern about their impact on the Chesapeake Bay. Not long ago, they produced a report urging closer scrutiny of their presence in the water, soil and air - and action to reduce their exposure to fish, wildlife and people.  I wrote about it earlier on this blog.

The EPA administrator's speech is drawing guarded praise from environmental advocates and scientists who believe exposure to low levels of toxic chemicals in consumer products could be responsible for a variety of health, developmental and reproductive problems in children and adults. Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group likened the current oversight of the thousands of chemicals in use to "the Wild West.

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"EPA has no authority to regulate industry," Wiles said, "and as a result it's not unlike banking. You end up with some very high-risk products."

It's also backed, at least in principle, by the chemical manufacturers themselves, who contend their products are safe but believe stronger federal oversight can restore public confidence.

With both industry and advocates in favor of stronger federal regulation, what could go wrong? As Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund says, "the devil is in the details." For instance, would stronger federal oversight of toxic chemicals trump laws limiting their use in states like California? EPA's Jackson was silent on that issue, while environmental advocates vowed to fight any move to toss state laws. The American Chemistry Council's Cal Dooley, speaking for manufacturers, said the industry would prefer one nationwide set of rules, but hopes that a stronger federal law will head off any further state actions.

The industry also signaled its willingness to pay steeper fees to have its chemicals reviewed by the government, but indicated it wants some assurance the reviews wouldn't drag on and slow or block the introduction of new products.

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