In a flurry of year-end legislative activity, the Senate last week approved a bill to overhaul the nation’s chemical safety system, and a separate measure to ban the use of tiny plastic beads in beauty products that can pollute waterways and harm marine life.
The chemical safety overhaul, named for Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, would be the first significant rewriting of the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act. Many experts have said the statute, enacted in 1976, is inadequate in protecting the public from dangerous chemicals in an array of consumer products, largely because of weak enforcement provisions.
Mr. Lautenberg, who died in 2013 at the age of 89, had been a driver of the effort to overhaul the chemical safety laws. The push to complete the legislation took on new urgency after 7,500 gallons of a coal processing chemical leaked into the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., in January last year.
Supporters of the legislation said it would require the Environmental Protection Agency to set clear priorities for assessing the risk of chemicals and would substantially increase the number of chemicals reviewed by federal regulators.
The House has approved a different version of the legislation, and the two measures must now be reconciled. That process is expected to take place early next year.
On Friday, the Senate, by unanimous consent, also adopted a bill banning the use of tiny plastic beads in beauty products, including exfoliating scrubs.
The beads flush through water treatment systems and out into lakes, waterways and the oceans, and attract toxic chemical compounds like PCBs that are then consumed by marine life. The beads, and other microplastic debris, have been identified as a threat to fish and other creatures, and studies have suggested that the chemicals can move up the food chain to humans.
The House passed its version of the bill earlier this month. The new federal law would require manufacturers to begin phasing out the beads in July 2017, and would follow bans passed in several states, including California and Illinois. A similar measure is under consideration in New York. Many major cosmetics companies, under pressure from environmental groups, have already announced phaseout plans.
The two environmental measures were part of year-end legislative activity that largely focused on a sweeping fiscal package, which included a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, and a $620 billion package of tax breaks for businesses and low-income individuals. Congress approved the fiscal measure on Friday morning, and President Obama signed it that afternoon.
The spending law included an array of provisions in a number of policy areas, which have prompted public debate. Among those provisions is an expansion of the H2-B visa program for seasonal workers that would potentially raise the number of workers admitted under the program to 250,000 from 66,000.
Supporters of the provision, including Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, said it would benefit businesses, like those in her state’s seafood industry, that face a shortage of workers.
Critics, including Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, said that the provision to expand the program was dropped into the spending measure without sufficient debate.
“It has been added to this bill without hearings and without an open process in the Senate,” Mr. Sessions said.