Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act Takes One Step Closer to Giving EPA Power to Ban Asbestos

Illustration of legal cases for asbestos and mesothelioma

One year ago today, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), along with three co-sponsors, introduced a bill to update the decades-old federal law that governs toxic chemicals – including asbestos. Just two days ago, that bill jumped over a major hurdle with the passage of an amendment that incorporates a number of changes suggested by the Senate. Now, it returns to the Senate for a final vote before, hopefully, being sent to President Obama to be signed into law.

Known formally as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, this piece of legislation has seen support from a diverse array of groups and individuals, from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). The most recent vote, which resolved differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, received an astounding amount of bipartisan support, passing with an overwhelming majority by a vote of 403-12.

Now that the Lautenberg Act has reached this important milestone, many of its congressional supporters have shared their relief at the progress the bill has made. Bill sponsor Rep. Shimkus stated, “This bill takes a thoughtful approach to protecting people all across the country from unsafe chemical exposure by making long needed improvements to an outdated and ineffective law.” Co-sponsor Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) focused on the improvements this bill will make to the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), saying, “The most notable improvements in the bill are replacing current TSCA’s burdensome safety standard with a pure, health-based standard.”

In addition to these comments from the bill’s supporters, Bonnie Lautenberg – widow of the bill’s namesake Frank R. Lautenberg – expressed her appreciation at the vote. “I am proud that this landmark bill, the most important environmental legislation in a generation, has been named in Frank’s honor,” she wrote in a blog post for The Hill. “The Lautenberg Act is not only about Frank’s legacy. It’s about all our children and grandchildren across the country—exposed to the invisible fog of untested and unregulated chemicals.”

New Powers for Protection from Asbestos

The most important aspect of the bill is the many updates it provides to the TSCA – one of which is that it gives the EPA additional powers to regulate dangerous substances like asbestos. “While this bill does not immediately prohibit asbestos imports,” explains Linda Reinstein of the ADAO, “it does represent a landmark step forward in the fight to ensure the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is able to protect Americans from toxic chemicals and once and for all ban asbestos.”

In particular, the bill establishes a new set of guidelines that the EPA will be able use when identifying and assessing the risks of various chemical substances. One of these substances is asbestos. In a statement made last week, as the Senate’s then-proposed amendment was being sent to the House for review, Senator Barbara Boxer made her own thoughts on the subject clear, “I fought hard to ensure that dangerous substances like asbestos are prioritized to get the attention they deserve from regulators. Asbestos is one of the most harmful substances known to humankind – it takes 10,000 lives a year. Asbestos should already be banned. I support an immediate ban, but the prioritization in this bill is a start.”

That fight took a long time, too. As Boxer acknowledged after final adjustments were made to the bill in the Senate, “This bill was the most difficult bill I have ever worked on.”

What’s Next for the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act?

Since the Senate’s amendment was passed by the House, the final version of the bill needs to be passed once more by the full Senate. This is seen by many as a formality, and could happen as soon as this week. After that, it will go to President Obama – who has already stated that he plans to sign the bill into law.

Unfortunately, even once it becomes law, there is still a ways to go before we could see a full asbestos ban. The EPA will have anywhere from a year to three years to implement various parts of the bill. And given that the asbestos industry has continued to fight bans and the potential bans in the past, there is a strong possibility that any attempt to ban asbestos will be fought in the courts.

Nonetheless, the latest hurdle is a momentous occasion. Every step closer to a full ban on asbestos is another step closer to fewer lives being taken by deadly diseases such as mesothelioma.