Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), plans Wednesday to introduce what he hopes will be signature legislation for his final term in office - a bill aimed at ensuring the safety of the many chemicals that Americans come in contact with every day.
The measure would give regulatory officials the authority to evaluate the safety of the flame retardants in couches, the phthalate compounds responsible for the smell of new vinyl shower curtains, the bisphenol A that protects food in cans, and other chemicals of concern in common household products.
Lautenberg's legislation would update the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. Environmental groups, public-health advocates, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials and the chemical industry have called for reform.
But the bill will likely face heavy opposition from industry. Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, said the version of the legislation he is familiar with has "serious deficiencies" that would make a complicated program "even more complex."
Lautenberg, 89, who has said he would not seek reelection in two years, has been missing Senate votes in recent months for health reasons. His staff said he was not available for an interview.
In a prepared statement, Lautenberg said that "American families deserve to know that the chemicals found in everyday products are safe. But because of our broken laws, toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other serious diseases make their way into our homes on a daily basis."
Environmental and public-health groups praised the legislation. Supporters include the National Medical Association, American Nurses Association, United Steelworkers, and the Breast Cancer Fund.
TSCA is the only significant environmental legislation of the 1970s that has not been updated.
When it was passed, TSCA grandfathered in about 60,000 chemicals. Now, more than 80,000 chemicals are in common use. The EPA can call for safety testing only after evidence of potential danger. The EPA has been able to require testing on only about 200 chemicals, and has regulated or banned five.
Lautenberg has been working on TSCA reform since 2005. Last year, his proposed legislation gained committee approval. But it passed out of committee late in the congressional schedule and never made it to the floor.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) is the lead cosponsor, joined by at least 27 Democrats, including Robert Menendez (D., N.J.)
With the proposed legislation, the EPA would be better able to collect health and safety information on chemicals, prioritize them based on risk, screen them for safety, and require risk management - including labeling, restrictions on use, and bans - when chemicals cannot be proven safe, Lautenberg's office said.
Proponents say that he incorporated provisions to address many of industry's concerns while the bill was in committee.
But they contend that while the chemical lobby has supported changes to the law in general, it has dragged its feet, perhaps hoping that the bill never makes it to the floor - where it would be difficult for legislators to vote, in effect, against chemical safety.
"When this bill finally comes to the floor of the Senate for a vote, each member is going to have choose whether to vote with pediatricians and nurses, or with Dow, DuPont and Exxon," all major chemical companies, said Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney and chemical reform expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group.
"The public health concerns driving the reform movement are getting traction in the real world," said Andy Igrejas, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. "Voters see this issue as linked to their health."
The group plans to counter the deep pockets of the chemical lobby with letter-writing campaigns and "stroller brigades," where mothers march with their children to drive home the public-health message.
A presumably more industry-friendly bill is expected to be introduced soon by Sen. David Vitter (R., La.).
Supporters of Lautenberg's legislation worry that some Democrats will support Vitter's legislation, allowing him to claim bipartisan support that Lautenberg's legislation has not yet achieved.
Michael Parr, senior manager of government affairs for DuPont, based in Wilmington, said the company has "strongly supported TSCA modernization to bring the program better into line with the expectations of our markets and the public."
But, he added, "We believe successful TSCA reform must be bipartisan and reflect the views of the diverse stakeholders."
Likewise, said the chemistry council's Jensen, "we are greatly encouraged by efforts being led by Senator Vitter to develop a new proposal that will improve safety and promote public confidence in our nation's chemicals management system, while also enabling U.S. industries to innovate and compete in the global economy."