WASHINGTON—The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved sweeping new chemical safety rules designed to overhaul federal regulation covering thousands of chemicals in daily use, a rare bipartisan action in a year when Congress is torn by presidential politics.
Trade groups representing Dow Chemical Co., DOW 1.07 % DuPont Co. DD 1.37 % and others pushed for the legislation amid concerns that states, and even large retailers, were stepping in with their own, sometimes far-reaching rules as a result of campaigns by consumer and environmental groups concerned about chemical safety.
The bill, expected to be passed by the Senate as soon as this week and signed into law by President Barack Obama, is the first update to federal chemicals safety law in 40 years. It passed 403 to 12.
It gives the Environmental Protection Agency authority to evaluate and impose restrictions on chemicals used in everything from dry-cleaning to grease removal to paint thinners. In most cases, it pre-empts states from passing new laws to regulate a chemical while the EPA reviews that chemical and sets standards or declares the chemical safe.
Democrats and Republicans came together on the sweeping legislation largely because it was supported both by some environmentalists and the chemical industry itself, which is eager for a unified national regime rather than the current patchwork of state regulations.
Cal Dooley, chief executive of the American Chemistry Council, said his group supports the new bill because it creates a nationwide regulatory system.
Mr. Dooley said consumers look to the EPA to provide guidance on chemical safety, but the agency hasn’t had sufficient authority to do so. “We were seeing an increasing decline in public confidence on the Environmental Protection Agency assessment on the safety of chemicals in the products that families use every day,” Mr. Dooley said.
The legislation is the product of months of negotiations across party lines and across the Capitol, with everyone from Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), backing the bill.
Mrs. Pelosi, in a statement with other Democratic leaders, said the bill “grants EPA with significant new authority to protect the public from unsafe toxic chemicals.” Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.), the House majority whip, said the bill would strengthen domestic manufacturing.
The White House issued a statement Monday describing the bill as a “historic advancement for both chemical safety and environmental law.”
Some environmental and consumer advocates have also backed the bill, though others say they are still concerned that it will prevent states from taking tougher actions.
“It is fixing a terrible law that never really worked,” said Richard Denison, a chemical safety expert at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s being done in a pretty divided Congress with a lot of anti-EPA sentiment, and yet it is a strong bill. On every major metric it is a significant improvement over the current law.”
The Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the main law governing chemicals sold in the U.S., has made it almost impossible for the government to control certain substances.
That is because it directs the EPA to consider the financial cost of regulation when evaluating a chemical, making it hard for the agency to restrict even substances known to be dangerous at any level, such as asbestos.
As a result, many consumers have been concerned that chemicals on the market may not always be safe, according to industry and environmental groups. That sentiment persuaded some states to pass tougher regulations and retail stores to restrict some chemicals, often based on international standards.
“This critical legislation will strengthen and modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act, our nation’s primary means for regulating chemicals,” said Dow Chemical in a statement released on Tuesday.
The bill mandates that the EPA review 10 to 20 chemicals each year, still a fraction of the thousands of chemicals that are currently unregulated. Environmental activists contend it would take decades to work through the backlog. The bill would also allow companies to ask the EPA to review particular chemicals.
The EPA has already set a priority list of about 100 chemicals to be regulated, including those commonly found in dry-cleaning products, grease removal, paint strippers and flame retardants.
Although there was, in recent years, general agreement between Republicans and Democrats and between industry and environmental groups on the basic need for more chemical regulation, the issue of whether and how to pre-empt states from passing their own restrictions became a key sticking point.
Under a compromise measure announced last week, states will have some time to pass their own interim rules while the EPA is considering a chemical for regulation and will be able to apply for a waiver. Previous state chemical regulations would be grandfathered.
Some environmentalists and consumer advocates remain concerned that the bill puts too much burden on the EPA to justify restrictions, and that it removes too much authority from states that want to pass their own bills.
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, indicated that some consumer campaigns will likely continue even after the law is passed.
“Because this law will not strongly and urgently address the problem of toxic chemical exposure, increasingly consumers will act to protect themselves,” Mr. Cook said in a statement.