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Congress Passes Largest Chemical Safety Legislation In 40 Years


In a year filled with partisan fighting, something remarkable has happened in Washington. Congress has passed the biggest chemical safety bill in 40 years. President Obama is likely to sign it.

Here to explain what this means for water bottles, soap, paper and other stuff that we use every day is Richard Denison. He's a toxicologist at the Environmental Defense Fund. Welcome to the program.

RICHARD DENISON: Thank you so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First explain what's in this bill.

DENISON: So this bill will revamp the way the country evaluates the safety of chemicals that we encounter every day. These chemicals have really never been assessed for safety. Unlike drugs, for example, that have to go through a rigorous review to get on the market, chemicals we use in everyday products have simply been assumed to be safe.

This bill is going to change that, and it's going to require an affirmative finding that chemicals are safe in order for them to stay on the market.

SHAPIRO: Tell me more about the specific consumer products that are likely to be affected by this.

DENISON: So the chemicals that are covered by this law are used in a huge array of applications that we run into every day - the paint on our walls, the carpeting under our feet, cleaning products and detergents - about the only thing it doesn't cover are chemicals in products that you put on or in your body deliberately. So drugs and food additives are not covered under this law, but just about everything else - every material and product that we use contains chemicals that this law is supposed to have regulated and hopefully will now be able to.

SHAPIRO: I'm thinking about products like lead and asbestos that maybe a few generations ago were widespread and used everywhere that today we think of as toxic and hazardous to people's health. Do you think there are things we're using today that will be the asbestos or lead of a future generation?

DENISON: Unfortunately, I do. I think we have two problems. One is chemicals that we actually already know are very dangerous. Formaldehyde is a good example, used in thousands of products - and it's a known human carcinogen. Then there are the tens of thousands of chemicals that we know very little about. And while many of those are likely to be quite benign, some of them aren't. And we have to start the process of sorting through those to get the ones that are problems out of our lives.

SHAPIRO: As everybody knows, Washington is unable to do the most routine business these days. How on Earth did a sweeping set of environmental regulations pass the House and Senate with the support of not only very many environmental groups but industry groups as well?

DENISON: It is a really stunning development, Ari. I would say the thing that brought it about is first the fact that the public and consumers were demanding change, second - that the industry itself began to recognize it needed a stronger federal system to restore confidence and third - there really was a commitment to do this on a bipartisan basis in Congress.

And I think that's because these issues touch everyone because they deal with our health. Everyone knows someone who got cancer at an early age or who wasn't able to conceive a child. And chemical exposures are increasingly linked to those problems, so I think what everybody felt it was time to upgrade this law.

SHAPIRO: Richard Denison is a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund. Thanks for joining us.

DENISON: My pleasure, Ari. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.