After finding that a "vast volume of chemicals have been released into the environment with little or no knowledge of their long term health or environmental effects," Congress in 1976 passed the Toxic Substances Control Act. The bill gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to review the environmental health and safety effects of chemicals such as mercury, asbestos, vinyl chloride, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which harm the environment and can cause cancer and/or other serious diseases. Today, as a result of this legislation, the EPA tests both new and existing chemicals to determine if they pose an unreasonable risk to public health or the environment. If a substance is found to be harmful, the EPA can move to regulate or ban it.

To inform communities and citizens of chemical hazards in their areas, Congress in 1986 created the Toxic Inventory Release (TRI) program. Originally, the law required companies to report on 311 dangerous chemicals that are handled and/or released into the environment, however, as of December 1998 that number had grown to 579 individual chemicals and 28 chemical categories.

In general, the chemical industry and environmentalists agree that the TRI reporting system is one of the most effective environmental regulations in place today. However, a "loophole" in the reporting system, which only requires companies to publicly disclose the release of large amounts of chemicals, is a point of contention between the environmental and chemical communities. According to the EPA, up to 95 percent of toxic chemicals released into the environment are not reported because of this loophole.

In 1999, the EPA unveiled a proposal to close the TRI "loophole" by dropping the reporting threshold to releases as small as 10 pounds or 100 pounds depending on the chemical. The rule would strengthen reporting requirements for 27 "persistent bioaccumulative toxics" including mercury, dioxin (which is produced by burning waste such as plastics) and PCBs. These chemicals do not break down easily and build up in the environment to the point where they are passed through the food chain. Reactions to the proposal were mixed. Some environmental groups called the proposal a major step towards a clean and healthy environment, while others said it didnít go far enough to ensure that a significant amount of pollution would not be unreported. The Children's Environmental Protection and Right to Know Act, which is currently before Congress, would also expand toxic chemical reporting requirements.

Superfund is the nation's principal federal program for cleaning up thousands of hazardous waste sites that threaten public health and the environment. Under the Superfund law, responsible parties must pay to clean up polluted sites. If a responsible party is not found, a trust fund created from taxes collected on petroleum and specified chemicals pays for the cleanup. However, this tax has expired and currently no new money is being added to the trust fund for Superfund cleanup. Congress is currently looking at ways to reform the Superfund program.

Congress unanimously passed the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) in 1996 to regulate the sale and use of pesticides. Under the law, pesticide manufacturers must provide the EPA with acute and chronic toxicity data to test for their potential to cause cancer, infertility, sterility, birth defects, nerve damage or chronic diseases. The EPA then uses the data to review pesticide products before they can be used. For example, the EPA is currently reviewing the use of organophosphates, which account for about half of all pesticides used in the United States. Farmers favor these pesticides because they are effective and cheap. However, environmentalists contend that infants and small children are at risk from eating foods with organophosphate residues

When Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 it required thousands of facilities to disclose what could happen in a "worst-case scenario" involving their most dangerous chemicals. Initially the EPA planned to post the accident reports on the Internet, where communities would be able to easily compare the accident safety plans of local chemical plants with similar plants across the country. However, the Internet plan was suspended after the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the FBI and the CIA raised concerns that terrorists would use the information to cause a chemical catastrophe. Environmentalists, especially the Working Group on Community Right to Know, say that by keeping the information off the Internet, Congress is preventing corporate accountability. They argue that public access to chemical plant safety plans will make communities safer, not more dangerous

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© 2000-2018, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund