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Last year ,the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed into law, amending the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976--the Nation’s primary management law of chemicals in commerce--and effectively changing the way hazardous chemicals are reviewed and classified.

While the Lautenberg Act will affect businesses in nearly every industry, those in construction will feel a particularly strong impact because many of the chemicals that professionals in the environmental, health and safety (EHS) industry predict the EPA will take action on (and possibly even ban) are found in commonly used insulations, paints, coatings and other building materials.

Up until now, the TSCA permitted the use of more than 80,000 chemicals without any safety review, and allowed hundreds of new chemicals to be released to the market untested each year. In TSCA’s 40-year history, only a handful of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market when the law passed have ever been reviewed for health impacts, and only five have ever been banned. The Lautenberg Act significantly alters this, requiring the EPA to establish a process that not only evaluates the safety of all new chemicals introduced to the market, but also assess the safety of all chemicals currently in use.

Among the highest priority of existing chemicals the EPA will test are those that present a high risk for water contamination and any known carcinogens. These chemicals will follow a risk-based process that identifies them as either “high” or "low” priority substances. Chemicals with a high priority designation must then be evaluated against a new risk-based safety standard to determine whether its use poses an “unreasonable risk.” The EPA will take risk management action within two to four years for any chemicals where an unreasonable risk is identified. During this final risk management action, he EPA will take into account the costs and availability of chemical alternatives in its determination of the appropriate action to take to address any risks. Under the new law, any action, including bans and phase-outs, must commence as quickly as possible, but occur no later than five years after the final risk management process commenced.

While thousands of long-known, highly hazardous chemicals will now be up for review by the EPA under the TSCA reform, some of the biggest targets the agency is expected to take action on are common in the construction industry.

  • Asbestos - found in thousands of building products such as joint compound, floor tiles and mastic, cement board, pipes and pipe insulation and shingles.
  • Formaldehyde - important in the manufacturing of paper products and polyurethane foam insulations.
  • Diisocyanate - used in the production of polyurethane products, such as rigid and flexible foams, coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers.
  • Flame Retardants - found in thermal insulation boards and many textiles.
  • Silica - found in soil, sand, concrete, masonry, rock, granite, and landscaping materials.
The EPA has recently announced expedited action on five types of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) chemicals, showing that it plans to act swiftly when it considers there to be high and well-understood risks to address. Because knowledge of the hazards of chemicals in the construction industry is well-established, it’s plausible to expect the EPA to begin planning expedited actions, making it critical for hazardous chemical users to begin preparing for any fallout from banned or restricted materials now.

If the EPA reviews even a fraction of its most-questioned chemicals, the resulting changes will affect the materials that can or can’t be used in construction, how those items and chemicals must be handled, what regulatory requirements will be in place for each, and how much it will cost to comply. Preparing for the TSCA reform changes now will help lessen the blow from commonly used chemical and product bans down the line.

An effective first step is to review the products and chemicals currently in use, and be ready to either find replacement products for any of the highly hazardous materials or to train employees on using these chemicals with greater care. A good chemical management software solution can help simplify this process, allowing companies to easily identify exactly where specific chemicals are located, and minimize any potential threat they present to worker safety or the environment.

Manufacturers of chemicals that appear on the EPA’s at-risk list may find themselves needing to revise their safety data sheets (SDSs) to reflect any new hazard or EPA regulatory-related information, or create new, less hazardous formulations of their products. So, now is also a good time for end users of these chemicals to be aware that revised SDSs for the chemicals currently in use may be coming. They should begin planning how they will ensure that they can identify and obtain the most recent SDS revisions, and keep their corresponding chemical inventory list up to date.

Remember, updated SDSs are only required to arrive with the first shipment or the next shipment after a change has been made. It’s up to employers to make sure they’re aren’t throwing away new documents and to locate new documents if they go missing. Chemical management software with mobile inventory management capabilities can help streamline the audit process, allowing site managers to locate and update these chemicals more quickly and efficiently. With the right solutions in place, companies will be prepared for any actions the EPA may take toward chemicals in the construction industry, which will help take the stress out of maintaining compliance.

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