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.