antiquated chemical safety laws so they provide a clear, fair set of rules for
industry and certainty for consumers that their products are safe."
The American Chemistry Council, the industry's chief trade group, says it supports the idea of a new chemical safety law but steadfastly opposed earlier versions of the Lautenberg legislation. In a statement released after the latest version was introduced, the group said "a sensible, strong and workable bipartisan solution ... is more important than ever."
An industry-backed alternative from Republican senators might be in the works, according to environmental groups involved in the debate on Capitol Hill. Such legislation might lead to a compromise or, more likely, split the Senate along party lines and thwart another chance to change the law.
The EPA acknowledges it knows little, if anything, about the safety of most of the 84,000 industrial chemicals in commercial use in the United States. Unlike European standards, which generally require companies to prove the safety of their chemicals before use, U.S. law requires manufacturers to submit safety data only if they have it.
Most don't, records show.
The EPA can require studies of new chemicals that it thinks could affect people's health. But the agency rarely does so, and the research doesn't need to be completed before the chemicals are sold.
To ban a chemical already on the market, the EPA must prove that it poses an "unreasonable risk." Federal courts have established such a narrow definition of "unreasonable" that the government couldn't even ban asbestos, a well-documented carcinogen that has killed thousands of people who suffered devastating lung diseases.
Critics including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, are calling for a dramatic overhaul.
"Science has advanced dramatically since the law was written," said Linda Birnbaum, a veteran government scientist who leads the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "We should be using all of the new science and not be locked into studies and approaches that were state of the art 30 or 40 years ago."
Regardless of what happens in Congress, the EPA said it will use its limited authority under existing law to assess the risks of several flame retardants, including two ingredients in a mixture the agency promoted as safe nearly a decade ago and now is widely sold under the brand name Firemaster 550. Those chemicals have shown up in household dust and wildlife across the world.
Last year, the Tribune documented the government's conflicting messages about Firemaster 550 as part of an investigation that revealed a deceptive, decadeslong campaign by the chemical and tobacco industries to increase the use of flame retardants. Promoted as lifesavers, the chemicals actually provide no meaningful protection from furniture fires, according to government and independent studies.
The EPA approved Firemaster 550 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 such as fused vertebrae. A study published last year by Heather Patisaul, a North Carolina State University toxicologist, and Heather Stapleton, a Duke University chemist, suggested the
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