With new evidence surfacing almost weekly about how Americans are absorbing hormone-disrupting chemicals — sometimes merely from sitting on a sofa or drinking from a plastic cup — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is getting sweeping new powers to regulate toxic substances in furniture, toys, electronics and household products.
Legislation sent this month to President Barack Obama for his expected signature will give the EPA more authority to order safety tests for chemicals and set deadlines for the agency to determine whether dangerous compounds should be restricted or forced off the market. The EPA also will be required to take additional steps to ensure pregnant women, children and other vulnerable populations are protected.
But even in the best-case scenarios envisioned by lawmakers who backed the unusual bipartisan compromise, it will take the EPA more than a decade to determine the fate of a few dozen chemicals the agency already has identified because they are suspected of posing significant health hazards.
For instance, though the EPA knows people are regularly exposed to certain flame retardants and studies show the widely used chemicals are harmful, it could take at least seven years under the new system before rules are in place regulating their use. Chemical companies could get another five years to comply with regulations.
Meeting those deadlines will depend on more money and manpower at a federal agency that is routinely attacked by the Republican majority in Congress and that GOP candidate Donald Trump has vowed to gut if elected president. Several bureaucratic and judicial hurdles also remain that could delay changes sought by consumers and retailers.
“This isn’t going to be an overnight success,” said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund who spent years pushing for an overhaul of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the only major environmental statute that hasn’t been updated by Congress since it originally took effect. “The reason it’s going to take a long time to work is because we’ve been in such a deep hole for such a long time.”
Scientists are finding a vast array of chemicals in air, water, food and people, often decades after the compounds were first added to consumer products. In a new analysis of peer-reviewed studies and other data, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group tallied more than 400 known or suspected carcinogens that have been detected in Americans, including nine found at high enough levels to pose a cancer risk.
Under existing law, the chemical industry has been allowed to put products on the market without safety testing and to keep many of its formulas secret. Regulators largely have been prohibited from taking action unless they could prove a chemical poses an “unreasonable risk” — a threshold so burdensome the EPA couldn’t even ban asbestos, a well-documented carcinogen that has killed thousands of people who suffered devastating lung diseases.
Agency officials still will have only 90 days to judge a new chemical before it can enter the market. But the EPA will be able to order testing without years of rulemaking and will be required to identify high-priority chemicals for review, with an initial focus on about 90 compounds.
“We know these chemicals accumulate in the environment and can cause cancer, neurological disorders and impaired reproduction,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who helped revive reform efforts in 2013 following a Tribune investigation about toxic flame retardants. “For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has lacked the authority to meaningfully regulate dangerous chemicals and keep them off the market.”
Members of Congress from both parties, chemical industry representatives and some public health groups hailed the compromise bill as a substantial improvement that balances competing interests.
Some leading industry officials began supporting a new national safety law after a growing number of states, motivated by a lack of action at the federal level, enacted bans on specific compounds. Some states, including California and Washington, established programs to study chemicals and draw attention to harmful substances.
The industry’s congressional allies, led by Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, secured new limits on state actions when the EPA is studying a chemical. But the provision isn’t as sweeping as the total ban on state authority sought by some companies.
“No question that this is a significant bill that will have a meaningful impact on the economy and the marketplace,” said Anne Kolton, a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s chief trade group. “It is a compromise, so naturally no one got everything they would have wanted had they been able to craft a reform bill on their own.”
Two widely used flame retardants highlighted by the Tribune’s “Playing With Fire” investigation are examples of how current law fails to guarantee the safety of chemicals in commonly used consumer products.
The EPA approved one flame retardant, known as Firemaster 550, more than a decade ago even though the manufacturer’s own health studies found that exposing rats to high doses can lower birth weight, alter female genitalia and cause skeletal malformations. More recent studies suggest the chemical ingredients can trigger obesity, anxiety and other problems at significantly lower levels.
Chemtura, the Philadelphia-based company that makes the flame retardant, says it introduced the chemical mixture because it offered a “better environmental profile” than Penta, another flame retardant it voluntarily withdrew from the market after studies found it builds up in people and triggers health problems.
Another flame retardant, known as TDCPP or chlorinated tris, was voluntarily removed from children’s pajamas during the late 1970s after scientists found it could mutate DNA. California lists it as a known carcinogen.
Yet manufacturers continued to add the chemical to other products. Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton found that until recently chlorinated tris was commonly added to household furniture cushions.
Both flame retardants are on the list of chemicals the EPA will assess under the new law. The Environmental Working Group estimates it could take the agency nearly three decades just to finish risk assessments for Firemaster 550, chlorinated tris and about 90 other compounds. Imposing and enforcing regulations would take even longer.
“How is that going to reassure the public?” asked David Andrews, the group’s senior scientist. “Some of these chemicals are going to end up remaining on the market for another generation.”
Other substances on the EPA’s priority list include asbestos and arsenic, the bisphenol A used in thermal paper and food can linings, and plasticizers known as phthalates. While the agency wraps up those reviews, Andrews said, other worrisome compounds likely will emerge, further challenging the limited agency staff.
The most encouraging signs of change may be seen in the marketplace, not in Congress. With parents and advocates clamoring for safer products, retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have been pushing suppliers to avoid entire families of chemicals rather than merely replacing one compound with something slightly different.
Andy Igrejas, executive director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families advocacy coalition, said the new law should do more good than harm.
“This is not a champagne moment,” he wrote in a blog post to fellow advocates. “But you deserve a beer at least.”