It could take centuries for EPA to test all the unregulated chemicals under a new landmark bill

Synthetic chemicals surround us. They’re in our takeout containers, children’s toys, furniture and clothes. There’s BPA in our receipts and flame retardants in our children’s carseats. You might think the government has carefully reviewed every chemical for safety before it hits the market. But it hasn’t.

In fact, there are more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use today, many of which haven’t been studied for safety by any government agency. But that’s about to change…somewhat. President Obama today signed into law the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, named after the late senator who introduced a version of the bill in 2013. This marks the first overhaul in 40 years to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the nation’s main law governing toxic chemicals.

READ MORE: Obama signs major overhaul of toxic chemicals rules into law

Public health and environmental advocates protested for decades that TSCA was too old and too weak to shield Americans from toxic chemicals. More than 60,000 commercial chemicals were allowed on the market without safety testing. And regulators had to prove a substance posed an “unreasonable risk” before they could take action – a burden of proof so difficult that the Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t ban asbestos, a known carcinogen that still kills 15,000 people each year.

science-wednesdayThe latest version of the law has received unusual bipartisan support. It passed the Senate on June 7. The House approved it last month, 403 to 12. Those involved with the bill see the passage as an example of cross-aisle compromise that better protects the environment and meets industry needs. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., worked with the chemical industry to draft legislation that would succeed with Republicans, who’ve repeatedly sought to defund the EPA.

“There was such strong support for this,” Udall said. “Not a single senator came to the floor to vote against this bill, and so this is pretty overwhelming support, and I think it really shows that senators and representatives want this to work for the American people.”

The new law requires EPA to test tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals currently on the market, and the roughly 2,000 new chemicals introduced each year, but quite slowly. The EPA will review a minimum of 20 chemicals at a time, and each has a seven-year deadline. Industry may then have five years to comply after a new rule is made. At that pace it could take centuries for the agency to finish its review.

There are other significant updates. Manufacturers will have a harder time making trade secret claims to keep basic chemical information confidential. It also allows agency findings to preempt state regulations. While states will still be able to regulate a chemical before the EPA reviews it, they must ultimately uphold the agency’s final decision. For decades, states have filled the gap in strong federal rules by crafting their own protections, but manufacturers complained it created a patchwork of regulations and increased costs. A strong state preemption was crucial to getting industry on board.

“There was not a piece of legislation that was introduced prior to this particular bill that achieved any bipartisan support and that was also a reflection of the polarized approach,” said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry advocacy group. “What was significant about this measure was that we were able to secure the support of industry, the environmental community, animal welfare groups, and from health and safety groups, as well as an overwhelming bipartisan support in both the house and the senate.”

But the bill didn’t win over everyone in Congress. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is one of the 12 representatives who voted against reform. She thinks the compromise ceded too much to the chemical industry, especially when it comes to state preemptions.

“Coming from a state like Maine where we have done some very good work on limiting the use of toxic chemicals, and knowing that there are so many of them out there, I just hated to see a state have its hands tied in the future, and I was concerned that things weren’t going to happen fast enough,” Pingree told NewsHour.

Critics of the law are also worried that EPA might lack the resources to effectively regulate. Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an environmental and consumer watchdog, said his group found that EPA doesn’t have enough money to review even the most dangerous chemicals on the list.

“The bill doesn’t provide EPA enough money to get through this enormous backlog of old, and in some cases, very dangerous chemicals to assess whether they need to be regulated or even banned,” he said. “It will take EPA decades to get through the thousand most dangerous chemicals that EPA itself has said need urgent review.”

So while Americans wait for the federal government to begin slowly testing and regulating the toxic chemicals encountered everyday, the burden is still on consumers to educate themselves about what toxins could be in the things they buy.