Critics say a bill in the Senate would undermine states’ efforts to protect consumers.
by Kevin Miller, Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON — A group of Maine mothers and activists joined others from around the country Tuesday to lobby Congress to change a chemical safety bill that they say would undermine consumer protection laws enacted in Maine and other states.
For about a decade, Maine has been at the forefront of efforts to ban potentially hazardous chemicals found in everyday products. Supporters of those laws claim states were forced to fill the regulatory gap left by the Toxic Substances Control Act, a nearly 40-year-old federal law that critics say allows chemicals into the marketplace without adequate safety testing.
A bipartisan bill that’s pending in the Senate would broaden the federal government’s ability to test and regulate chemicals linked to cancer and development problems in children, its supporters say. Unlike past measures, the proposal has support from the powerful chemical and manufacturing sectors.
But those who made up Tuesday’s national “stroller brigade” say that support came at a hefty price: a clause that could nullify state laws targeting chemicals or preclude states from taking action on dangerous chemicals when the federal bureaucracy stalls.
“We are extremely concerned,” said Kathy Kilrain del Rio of Portland, development and communications coordinator for the Maine Women’s Lobby. “A bipartisan bill that rolls back (state laws) and makes things worse doesn’t get anything done. So while we think it’s great that this has bipartisan support, you have to make sure it is meaningful reform.”
Kilrain del Rio was one of nine Maine women who gathered Tuesday morning in a park beside the U.S. Capitol for a rally organized by a coalition of environmental and health groups. The Maine group included mothers, public health advocates and former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, who sponsored several of Maine’s chemical safety laws.
Pingree, the daughter of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, participated in the “stroller brigade” with her 1-year-old son, Oscar, as the mothers visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Speakers at the main event called on lawmakers to rewrite the Senate proposal, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, to strengthen the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to identify and ban hazardous chemicals, especially those in children’s products.
“Most parents are unaware of the risks associated with these toxic chemicals because there are no warnings, cautions or advisories,” Dr. Yolanda Whyte, an Atlanta-based pediatrician, said during the event, which drew more than 150 people. “Even as a pediatrician, it is hard for me to advise parents on how and where to avoid toxic chemicals, because they are everywhere.”
The Chemical Safety Improvement Act was introduced by Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisana and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey who was among the most ardent voices for updating federal chemical safety laws before his death earlier this year.
The bill would direct the EPA to identify a list of chemicals for evaluation to determine whether they pose an “unreasonable risk” to human health or the environment. Chemicals deemed to pose a risk could be banned, or products containing them could be required to carry warning labels.
The American Chemistry Council, the largest trade group for chemical manufacturers, called the bill a “historic opportunity to pass meaningful legislation to reform and modernize” chemical regulations.” The bill has 25 co-sponsors, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
But the bill is unlikely to move forward as written.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is reviewing the legislation, opposes the provision that would prohibit states from regulating chemicals identified by the EPA as low-priority or high-priority chemicals. California has some of the nation’s most aggressive chemical safety and consumer protection laws.
“I’m not going to have a bill that pre-empts all of the good things that are happening in the country,” Boxer said Tuesday. She said there were “a lot of discussions” in her committee on revising the legislation, and she hopes to have a rewritten bill ready “as soon as possible.”
“The only thing that we felt worked in (the current law) is it did not restrict the states, and this bill does,” said Tracy Gregoire, healthy children’s project director for the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine, who has a 4-year-old son with special needs.
Maine has already banned or required phase-outs of a number of chemicals.
For instance, lawmakers voted in 2004, then again in 2007, to phase out three flame retardants commonly used in mattresses and household furniture. Research has linked the flame retardants – which leach from household goods and are carried in dust – to development problems in children.
In 2008, the Maine Legislature passed the Kid Safe Products Act, which established a process for the Department of Environmental Protection to identify “chemicals of high concern” and require manufacturers to disclose any products containing the chemicals.
The law was used to ban sales of children’s sippy cups and other reusable beverage containers made with bisphenol-A, BPA, a plasticizing agent linked to cancer and childhood development problems.
The law was enacted during the administration of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. The administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage sought to repeal the law soon after taking office in 2011 and has since been accused of slowing the law’s application to other chemicals. LePage vetoed an expansion of the law earlier this year.
Megan Rice, a mother of two young girls from Belgrade, said she tries to be proactive by researching products before she buys. But Rice learned only recently that the laundry detergent she was using received a poor safety grade from chemical safety watchdog groups.
“I’m just tired of finding out after the fact that something I thought was safe really wasn’t,” Rice said between meetings with members of Maine’s congressional delegation.