WASHINGTON - The U.S. law on chemical safety is 37 years old, riddled with exceptions and widely considered ineffective - so much so that the government hasn't even tried to restrict an unsafe chemical since courts overturned its asbestos ban in 1991.
Now that law could soon get a face lift, amid growing concern that ingredients in ordinary consumer products are leading to health problems.
On Wednesday, Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and David Vitter (R., La.) announced that they had reached a "groundbreaking" agreement to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, ending two decades of gridlock in the Senate over how to test and regulate the tens of thousands of chemicals found in everything from crib mattresses to water bottles.
If the Lautenberg-Vitter Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 were to pass, it would be the first time that a major U.S. environmental law was updated since the 1990 overhaul of the Clean Air Act.
"This bill proves that bipartisan compromise can still work in Washington," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.), who Senate staffers say was critical in bringing together the main sponsors. All told, the bill has eight Democratic cosponsors and eight Republicans onboard.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers such as Dow Chemical Co. and DuPont Co., hailed the compromise. Environmentalists were split, with some viewing it as an encouraging step and others saying it would do too little.
All sides seemed to agree that the current process is dysfunctional. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Environmental Protection Agency can call for testing of a chemical only if evidence surfaces that the substance is dangerous. What's more, tens of thousands of existing chemicals were exempt from review when the law was enacted in 1976.