Nature | Editorial

Toxic control

The United States is overhauling its chemicals law; now it must tackle carbon emissions.

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The 1976 US Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) must be one of the worst pieces of environmental legislation ever devised. Rather than empowering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure that new chemicals are safe, the law declared all chemicals harmless, unless proven otherwise. The situation is so preposterous, in fact, that even the normally dysfunctional US Congress managed to unite last week to advance reform.

The bipartisan TSCA reform bill passed the House of Representatives, by a vote of 403–12, on 24 May. Although senator Rand Paul (Republican, Kentucky) has temporarily blocked a vote in the Senate, the legislation is expected to pass in the coming weeks, clearing the way for a signature by President Barack Obama. Once that happens, EPA scientists will at last have the authority to do their jobs.

Rather than watching passively as some 700 new chemicals enter all corners of the US marketplace each year, the EPA would be able to require companies to provide more data and conduct extra research to demonstrate the safety of the products. The legislation would also bolster review of existing substances. The TSCA inventory currently lists some 85,000 chemicals, but no one knows how many are still in use today. The EPA would create a new inventory and then sift through it to see which ones merit further investigation.

What is most remarkable about this reform legislation — aside from the fact that it took so long — is the list of supporters: Democrats and Republicans, both houses of Congress and the legislative branch, as well as many environmentalists and the chemical industry. The reason is simple: the companies that manufacture and use chemicals, once adamantly opposed to such reform bills, have realized that a viable federal regulatory system is in their financial interest. The complete lack of public confidence in the EPA’s authority under the TSCA has pushed environmental officials at the state level to launch their own investigations and regulations. The upshot is that without a stronger federal system, the industry faces an increasingly complex — and uncertain — patchwork of regulations.

This is all good news for the public, which is bombarded daily by news reports, environmental campaigns and scientific studies that analyse the danger of one chemical or another in products that they purchase every day. It is also good for science. The new law will drive research into chemicals of concern, and companies will find it harder to claim that the information that they submit is a trade secret. As a result, more data will enter the public and academic spheres, and that is always a good thing.

“It’s a reasonable compromise that moves the regulatory needle in the right direction.”

Environmentalists pushed to ensure that the EPA’s new decisions about health risks will be based on health data alone, without regard to economic implications. Under the new legislation, the EPA would be able to consider economic impacts in any subsequent cost–benefit analysis only if it moves forward with regulations. And industry pushed for mandatory deadlines to ensure that decisions are made in a timely manner. All in all, it’s a reasonable compromise that moves the regulatory needle in the right direction.

It is also a blueprint for what ultimately needs to happen to break the legislative stalemate on what is perhaps the greatest environmental challenge: the effect of greenhouse gases on climate. Despite overwhelming evidence showing the need for action, the energy industry has obstructed and stalled for too long, and the only real result is prolonged regulatory uncertainty. If major businesses, including energy producers and consumers, were to get together en masse and push for regulation, Republican lawmakers would be forced to pull their heads out of the sand and think about reasonable solutions that are in line with their own political values.

Low-carbon energy such as nuclear power and that obtained from renewables would benefit the most, but natural gas would also get a short-term boost as utilities back further away from coal, which is already on the decline. Even coal would see its chances of survival increase in the long run, because properly agreed federal regulations would bolster the economics and interest in technologies that can be used to capture and sequester, or even use, carbon dioxide. At a minimum, with a legitimate set of rules in place, companies could move forward and plan their long-term investments accordingly.

Everyone could see that the original TSCA bill created a problem. It has taken decades, but reform was inevitable. The need for legal controls on the generation and control of greenhouse gases is just as clear — indeed, that is why the energy industry has fought so hard to undermine the evidence. This time, we do not have decades to waste.

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