3 GOP senators join call for action on toxic flame retardants

Chemical IndustryCrime, Law and JusticePoliticsU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyScienceFrank LautenbergSheldon Whitehouse

The first signs of bipartisan support for overhauling the nation's chemical safety law emerged Monday, as three Republicans joined 23 other senators calling for tough restrictions on toxic flame retardants.

Citing the Tribune's "Playing With Fire" investigation, which exposed a deceptive, decadeslong campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries to promote flame retardants, the lawmakers called for a sweeping update of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. The 1976 law gives the government little power to assess or limit dangers from flame retardants and the scores of other chemicals added to furniture, electronics, toys, cosmetics and household products.

"Americans deserve to know that the chemicals used in everyday consumer products are safe," the senators wrote in a letter to Lisa Jackson, theU.S. Environmental Protection Agencyadministrator.

Senators who signed the letter included several co-sponsors of legislation to revamp the chemical safety law, including Democrats Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dick Durbin of Illinois. For the first time, they were joined by Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, who broke from the strong anti-EPA sentiment among GOP lawmakers.

The letter stopped short of endorsing Lautenberg's proposed Safe Chemicals Act, which would give the EPA more authority to regulate chemicals and require manufacturers to prove their products are safe before putting them on the market.

However, the senators lamented that current law requires a lengthy rule-making process even to obtain basic health and safety information about chemicals.

"This reinforces why there is broad agreement that (the chemical safety law) must be reformed to protect American families from dangerous chemicals in a cost-effective way," they wrote.

The American Chemistry Council, the chief trade group for the chemical industry, fiercely opposes Lautenberg's bill and has repeatedly noted that no Republicans support it.

"We continue to support a bipartisan effort to produce legislation that will create a world class system to regulate the safe use of chemicals and foster American innovation and job creation," the group said in a statement.

The EPA, meanwhile, said flame retardants highlight weaknesses in the chemical safety law.

"It is time for this badly outdated law to be strengthened so EPA has the tools to quickly and efficiently obtain information from manufacturers that is relevant to determining the safety of chemicals," the agency said in a statement. "EPA also should have clear authority to establish safety standards that are based on scientific risk assessments, and authority to take action when chemicals do not meet the safety standard to reduce or eliminate risk."

In their letter, the senators said they also support an EPA effort under existing law to crack down on a group of flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

Since the 1970s, levels of PBDE flame retardants have dramatically built up in breast milk and babies' blood worldwide, and the chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, impaired fertility and developmental problems. But the chemical safety law has made it difficult for the EPA to take action.

Invoking rarely used provisions of the law, the EPA has proposed rules that would all but ban the manufacturing of PBDEs in the U.S. and block imports without extensive and expensive testing.

The Tribune series detailed how an obscure White House office had delayed the rules for months under intense pressure from industry lobbyists to back off. Industry groups fear that adopting the rules would set a precedent that would make it easier to take action against other toxic chemicals.

While the rules have since been released for public comment, several hurdles remain. After the EPA issues another version reflecting outside comments, the rules go back to the same White House office for another review.

Other senators who signed Monday's letter included Democrats Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Dianne Feinstein of California, Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Jon Tester of Montana, Tom Udall of New Mexico, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut also signed.

mhawthorne@tribune.com

Twitter @scribeguy

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