Senate endorses bill to allow health department to regulate toxic chemicals

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington, advocated for the passage of a toxic chemicals regulation bill on Wednesday at a Statehouse news conference. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington, advocated for the passage of a toxic chemicals regulation bill on Wednesday at a Statehouse news conference. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

The state Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would ban chemicals from consumer products sold in Vermont if the state considers them harmful to human health.

S.239 passed by a vote of 18-12 Wednesday. It needs final approval from the Senate before moving to the House.

The legislation would allow the Department of Health to maintain a running list of potentially toxic chemicals. Manufacturers would have to report these chemicals to the state. The department could then require that some be labeled or banned from consumer products sold in Vermont.

Lawmakers want to put a more efficient system in place to keep watch on toxic chemicals linked to cancer, asthma, developmental disorders, reproductive health and the like. Vermont has regulated chemicals individually in the past, including lead, mercury, bisphenol A (BPA) and flame retardants.

“We’re talking about poison – poison that goes unregulated,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington.

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office believes the bill has no constitutional problems – Vermont has banned chemicals in the past and the new system would still protect industry trade secrets – but businesses have been quick to oppose the bill, which they say will create a “patchwork” of state policies that impose costly reporting fees.

Joe Choquette, a lobbyist for the firm Downs Rachlin Martin, represents a broad range of interest groups who he said are opposed to the bill.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions and possibly unintended consequences,” he said. “It’s very broad. It’s not just children’s products, it’s all consumer products.”

The bill includes exemptions for electronic devices, ammunition (including lead shot), certain pesticides, tobacco, foods and beverages, and motor vehicle components.

Mack Molding, a plastic injection molding manufacturer, and Energizer Battery Inc., together employ 700 people in Bennington County, according to Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. Sears said businesses need to have more say in each chemical that is banned through the legislative process the bill aims to replace.

“Where will be the public voice in this bill?” Sears asked the Senate. He went on to vote against the bill in a roll call.

An advisory group would make recommendations to the health commissioner on how to regulate certain chemicals. Members of the group would include public interest groups, state officials, businesses and others.

Environmental groups said the bill is about protecting the public’s health.

“It would help to keep the most dangerous toxins out of consumer products in Vermont. And by doing so, everyone from kids to firefighters are going to be safer,” said Taylor Johnson, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which backs the bill.

“This is a win for public health in the state of Vermont,” he said.

Firefighters threw their weight behind S.239 at a Statehouse news conference before the floor vote Wednesday.

Ben O’Brien, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, which represents about 280 firefighters, said toxic chemicals find their way from firefighters’ protective gear onto their skin, causing respiratory illnesses and cancer.

“Firefighters around the country are experiencing alarming rates of cancer,” O’Brien said. “More firefighters today are actually dying with their boots off than they are from any other job-related cause,” he continued.

He said the chemicals found in couches, mattresses and baby clothes, for example, contain flame retardants linked to harmful health effects.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, is the bill’s lead sponsor.

“We want to eliminate toxic chemical in our state from personal products, from products that are in our homes and our residences,” she said, “so that when firefighters are called to save lives and save property, that they are not exposed to very toxic chemicals that can give them cancer and other chronic health conditions.”

The health department says it has the resources to begin composing a list of chemicals potentially harmful to health, or “chemicals of high concern,” by July 1, 2016.

According to the bill, the earliest a chemical could be regulated is the following year.

Manufacturers would pay up to $2,000 for each chemical of high concern contained in the department’s list. The money would go to the Agency of Natural Resources and the health department to administer the program.

John Herrick

Comments

  1. judith augsberg :

    “Sears said businesses need to have more say in each chemical that is banned through the legislative process the bill aims to replace.”
    I imagine this legislation is only the beginning of a process. There does need to be specificity and clarity about the scope and means for effective regulation. BUT the point is not to have businesses and lobbyists cherry-pick toxic candidates for oversight. The point is isn’t what’s good for business, it’s what’s good for public health.

  2. sandra bettis :

    these so called ‘business groups’ seem to be against anything that is good for the people and good for our state.

  3. Joyce Acebo Raguskus :

    This is about health for human beings.
    This is not about exploiting at the cost of lives.
    My Uncle Tino Acebo a long time part of VERMONT’s legislative body would have supported this important Bill.
    Thank you Vermont!

  4. Kathy Nelson :

    “Ben O’Brien, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, which represents about 280 firefighters, said toxic chemicals find their way from firefighters’ protective gear onto their skin, causing respiratory illnesses and cancer.”

    One of the reasons firefighters get sick from burned toxins is that they fail to properly clean their gear after a fire. Many of them think it makes them look tough and experienced if their gear looks like it’s been roughly used. Filth in the firehouse is a real problem everywhere and that is a tradition that kills. So I say to Ben, if he is as worried as he claims then maybe he should be installing some washers and dryers in the firehouse and start making sure his firefighters clean their equipment, and themselves, after being exposed to chemical residue (including from car fires).

    • Ben O'Brien :

      Kathy, I am pleased to inform you that we are proactive and do have specialized gear washers in most of the departments that the PFFV represents. It is a common practice to wash out gear after each fire. Our members take great pride in keeping our equipment clean and serviceable. I invite you to visit any of the firehouses that my members work in and observe for yourself the pride full time firefighters in the state take in their jobs and safety.

      • Kathy Nelson :

        Ben, thank you for your response to my comment and and for your confirming that “most”, but not all VT fire services clean their gear (I’m talking turnout coats, bunker pants and helmets as well as tools and trucks). It’s nice to know some effort is being made to keep our full time and volunteer firefighters safe and well.
        And Ben, as it relates to this story about toxic chemical control in VT, what efforts have been made by your organization to demand a clear, accurate and immediate report to emergency services of all chemicals being transported by rail through VT? It’s been something of a “tradition” for train derailments coming through the Northeast Kingdom, and one only needs to stand for a few moments in the center of Island Pond Village and look at the hazardous chemical placards attached to 40 or 50 rail cars parked in the middle of town while the crews change or kick back for a break.
        The railroad is anything but cooperative about the toxins and flammables they haul through VT towns. Not knowing what firefighters will be responding to might mean they won’t live long enough to clean their gear. Have you brought this issue to the attention of the sponsors of this bill, Ben?

  5. Chet Greenwood :

    “The bill includes exemptions for electronic devices, ammunition (including lead shot), certain pesticides, tobacco, foods and beverages, and motor vehicle components.”

    Very vague!!

    We let bureaucrats decide what is toxic?
    They will have a field day finding any excuse to list chemicals, and even suspect chemicals. We are going to have our own set of standards which could prohibit interstate commerce and possibly put more Vermonters out of business- of course it would make Sandra happy!
    Too many times the Legislators pass” feel good” bills only to find the end result not what they intended after an Agency creates their handiwork.

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