insert alt text

On Tuesday night, the U.S. Senate passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act on a voice vote, sending it on to the next, and final, step of the legislative process, to be signed into law by President Obama. The President has previously indicated that he will sign the bill.

Although initially held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act has received a lot of bipartisan support, having recently passed the House of Representatives in a staggering 403-12 vote last month. The bill updates the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was signed into law by President Ford in the 1970s, by giving new powers to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the regulation of dangerous substances, including asbestos.

Supporters of the bill on both sides of the aisle praised the passage of the Lautenberg Act. “Passage of this bill in the Senate means that for the first time in 40 years, the United States of America will have a chemical safety program that works,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, stated. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) agreed, “Today’s victory is a culmination of years of hard work and dedication from both sides…. This law will be a game changer for the safety of our families and communities.”

On the Senate’s passage of the Lautenberg Act, Linda Reinstein, President and Co-Founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), praised those who have helped usher the bill through the long, and often frustrating, legislative process. “ADAO sincerely thanks every member of Congress who fought to protect Americans from asbestos and other toxic chemicals,” Reinstein said in a press release. “We praise public health champion, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), whose leadership ensured that we are on the road to a final ban on asbestos.”

Closer to an Asbestos Ban

The passage of this bill undoubtedly brings us a step closer to a ban on asbestos, a toxic substance that is the only scientifically known cause of the deadly cancer mesothelioma, along with a number of other health-related problems. Specifically, the new bill gives the EPA increased power to regulate harmful materials than it previously had. According to an article by The Hill, to date the EPA has regulated only five chemicals under the 40-year-old TSCA. This update to an obsolete piece has been long in the making.

One of the ways that the EPA will be able to better regulate chemicals is through the ability to gather more information prior to a chemical’s commercial use. In a Facebook post announcing the Senate’s passage of the bill, Sen. Udall wrote, “Most Americans believe that when they buy a product at the hardware store or the grocery store, that product has been tested and determined to be safe. But that isn’t the case.” With these new regulatory controls, the hope is the EPA will be able to stop dangerous substances from entering the marketplace, thereby saving thousands if not millions of lives now and in the future.

However, a ban on asbestos is not a guarantee, and it may yet be years away. According to Linda Reinstein of the ADAO, “Under this legislation, the EPA may take as long as seven years to assess, regulate, and ban asbestos in the ADAO community knows all too well, the true cost of delay will be measured in lives.” While organizations like the ADAO will urge the EPA to investigate and implement an asbestos ban sooner, there is no guarantee that the government agency will do so.

In addition to the length of time that it could take for the EPA to implement a ban on asbestos and other dangerous materials, a change in the executive office next year could realign priorities. In a March debate, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that he would look to gut the EPA, along with other governmental agencies, stating, “We're going to have little tidbits left but we're going to get most of it out.” Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is more in favor of the EPA as a regulator, but has previously offered harsh criticism of the agency’s current head for its handling of the Flint water crisis and other environmental events. Whichever nominee winds up winning in November, they are likely to have different perceptions of the EPA’s role and function, and they almost certainly set new priorities for the agency going forward.

Nonetheless, the passage of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act in the Senate removes a major obstacle to the possibility of a future ban on asbestos. Once President Obama signs the act into law, organizations like the ADAO and others who have been pushing for an asbestos ban can put their efforts into pushing the EPA to expedite their regulatory process.