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Congress, Obama find accord on regulation of household chemicals

President Obama reached a rare agreement with Congress on a new law to regulate toxic household chemicals. The legislation, signed Wednesday, will give the EPA the authority to vet and ban tens of thousands of substances potentially harmful to humans, including chemicals in detergents, cleaners and furniture. Gwen Ifill learns more from political director Lisa Desjardins.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, first: The president and Congress have reached rare agreement on a new law that will regulate everyday toxic chemicals. The president signed it today, setting in motion the biggest changes in four decades.

    The Environmental Protection Agency now has new authority to review and eventually restrict or ban tens of thousands of chemicals that could be carcinogenic or otherwise harm human health, among them, substances found in household detergents and cleansers, flame retardants and furniture.

    But it may take a while.

    Lisa Desjardins joins us to fill in the picture.

    Lisa, why is this significant?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    This is incredibly significant.

    We're talking about a vast universe of things that we touch in our everyday lives. Some estimate that one out of every three sort of processed products that we buy, not food, but everything else, could have toxic chemicals in it.

    And what happened, Gwen, was the law passed 40 years ago was essentially toothless. So the EPA wasn't even able to regulate forcefully something like asbestos, which we know from scientific evidence is lethal and may — causes a lethal form of cancer, but yet it's not banned because the law previously wasn't strong enough.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You and I both have covered Washington for a while. We know how hard it is to get bipartisan agreement on anything. Why this, why now?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Imagine.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Wow.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Nothing is getting done in Washington. A sweeping bill over an $800 billion industry? Well, that's the answer. The industry got on board.

    The chemical industry felt this was in their interest because, up until now, they have self-regulated and states have regulated, Gwen. So the chemical industry has dealt with 50 different sets of laws across this country. They found that it was in their interest at this time to have a national law, have the EPA take this over.

    So what we're going to have now from this law is the EPA having dominance, being able to override states, with some exceptions, in general when it comes to chemical safety.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There are so many different arguments on either side of this.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    One is that this is the best it could get and this is a strong, big move. What is the argument for that?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right.

    So let's talk about supporters. They feel like this was something that was a long time coming, that these are dangerous chemicals that are unregulated and could explain things like, oh, autism or cancer. We don't know if they do, but the question is, no one is investigating. Now the EPA can investigate.

    So that group includes people like Tom Udall of New Mexico. And he spoke to us about this law.

    REP. TOM UDALL (D), New Mexico: The first thing to realize, we're doing zero today. We're not doing any chemicals today. And so what this bill does is stand up the agency to get working in a really constructive way on chemicals.

    There are going to be many chemicals, and that's why I think many chemicals that aren't addressed in the first couple years, and that's why I would urge the states to get out there and to regulate.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And yet, Lisa, there are people who don't think that this goes far enough, not only members of Congress, but a lot of people involved in activist groups.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's right. This bill tried to address a problem of scale, but it has a problem of scale.

    Let's look at a graphic explaining this. As we mentioned earlier in this segment, there are some 84,000 chemicals that the EPA has yet to review and now can review. But the problem is how long it takes to do that. Under this law, the EPA is required to examine at least 20 of those chemicals within a four-year time span.

    That gives you a sense of how long it takes to go through each of these chemicals. And some who are nervous about this bill say, realistically, we're in the sure this is even going to scratch the surface of the problem.

    Someone who has those questions is Scott Faber with the Environmental Working Group. He talked to us for this story.

  • SCOTT FABER, Environmental Working Group:

    The bill provides half as much money as the agency needs just to get through the thousand most dangerous chemicals out of many thousands of chemicals that are used in commerce.

    Certainly, if you ask the question, is this law better than what we have on the books, the answer is yes. If you ask the question, does this law give EPA the ability to quickly review and regulate the most dangerous chemicals, the answer is almost certainly no.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That's not the most enthusiastic — in fact, not criticism or endorsement.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And yet groups like this still signed on, because they feel like this is better than nothing, which is exactly what you heard.

    And I think it's because this is sort of an invisible problem. When we say this is a huge amount of products, it's a vast number of products, baby bottles, car seats, mattresses. Even, Gwen, something like the necklace I'm wearing right now, I know you will be shocked that it's not real gems. It probably is made of chemicals that are unregulated. We don't know what these are doing in our lives.

    And they're saying something is better than nothing, but we will see what actually happens in reality.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, we say unregulated. They were unregulated by the federal government.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's right. That's right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But states often were able to regulate a lot of these substances.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's right.

    And that was one of the final pivot points to making this bill become reality, that some Democrats, including Democrats from California, like Barbara Boxer, where they have some of the strongest regulations on these chemicals, were concerned about this.

    And they ended up carving out an exemption where some of the laws they already have on the books will stay on the books. But, going forward, anything passed after 2015 by the states can be overridden by the EPA. It has to go out of its way to do it, but that can happen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It really sounds a little bit to me, however, as if states are being deprived of some of their role. Usually, the argument on Capitol Hill is that the states — or even at the Supreme Court — that the states should have more power, not less.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Well, that's the argument, I think, that states are making clearly, and some of the opponents of this law are very concerned about.

    But think about it. This is not the only issue where we have seen this trend. How about CAFE standards, the mileage requirements for our vehicles? Those used to be state by state. Under President Obama, those were raised, so that carmakers had to make our cars more fuel-efficient on a national level. Previously, it had been on a state level.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The argument being that a patchwork series of law didn't apply to everybody equally.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right, and especially that it was a burden on the product makers, the manufacturers that had to — could make a product that fit 50 different sets of rules.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's fascinating, the way things get done in Washington, sometimes not done on some days like today.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And surprising, but this really did happen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It really did happen.

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you so much.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    My pleasure.

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