Global technology giant IBM has joined the opposition to a Vermont proposal to regulate chemicals in children’s products that the state’s health department considers harmful.
Big Blue was part of a chorus of major industries against the plan, a list that includes the Toy Industry Association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Keurig Green Mountain and Wal-Mart.
“If you’re going to be considering potentially taking away somebody’s livelihood, we need to be sure there’s an actual harm, an actual exposure and a risk from those products,” Janet Doyle, a representative for IBM, told the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Committee.
The Vermont Senate this year passed one of the toughest policies in the nation to regulate toxic chemicals found in all consumer products, business lobbyists said. The groups have successfully downsized the bill in the House, limiting the scope of the chemical reporting requirement to children’s products. The legislation creates a program comparable to Washington state’s program.
The large corporations are concerned that even if the law only applies to children’s products, the bill cracks the door open for further regulation and will cost their companies thousands in reporting fees.
Companies fear Vermont’s program would impose costs on businesses for reporting chemicals that might be safe in small amounts. They want the state to make a stronger case when requiring companies to label or remove chemicals found in their products, according to Bill Driscoll, vice president of the trade organization Associated Industries of Vermont.
“That’s why I think there might need to be some sort of standard, not just that it is linked to these health effects, but at what level of exposure do you need to actually have those effects,” Driscoll told lawmakers.
“If it’s something that you need to eat a truckload a day for a year to have a cancer risk, then that’s not a really a meaningful risk that would warrant listing,” he said.
The bill creates a working group of representatives from a public interest group, a health advocate, a scientist and businesses. Only when this group recommends action can the health commissioner regulate chemicals considered to be a risk to public health.
Environmentalists and public health advocates have watched the bill weaken in the House. Now they seek to ensure that the bill’s scope expands over time.
“Starting out with children’s products – consistency with Washington – could be way to get it up and running, but limiting ourselves in that way in the long term is certainly limiting the health protections under the bill,” said Lauren Hierl, a lobbyist with the group Vermont Conservation Voters.
Children’s products are defined under the bill as any product used by (or marketed for) children under 12 years of age, including toys, cosmetics, jewelry, products for teething and sucking, and car seats. Electronics, winter equipment and second-hand products are exempt.
Nick Carter represents Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, an organization that considers toxic chemical exposure a “top health care risk.” He recommended expanding the scope of the bill over time to include all consumer products.
“I think even for protecting children under 12, you’re not actually doing them full service by limiting it to just children’s products,” he said. “I’m not sure what world that is where children limit themselves to products that are designed for them.”
Exposure to certain chemicals has been linked to harmful health effects for all ages: cancer, intellectual development, reproductive health – including altered semen quality, sterility, menstruation and fertility – and other effects not limited to children’s direct contact with toxic chemicals, Carter said.
Committee Chair Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, said he supports a provision that would expand the rulemaking authority to a broader range of products. That’s why he inserted a provision that asks the health department to report to lawmakers next year on whether to expand the scope of products.
Deen will decide whether to allow the health department to regulate chemicals without legislative approval. Businesses want lawmakers to have the final say, but public health advocates say the process is too slow.
“Is that a good way to reach an end to protecting Vermonters? Now, I don’t have an answer to that question yet,” he said. “I’m leaning toward rule-making, but that’s a lean.”
Over-reaching, businesses say
Currently, the legislature regulates chemicals one at time, and has done so for mercury, bisphenol A (BPA), lead and flame retardants. Industry groups prefer the legislative process because it allows them more involvement.
“It’s beyond the scope of the Department of Health and it’s really something that is more appropriately fleshed out and debated in the Legislature for the various stakeholders,” Driscoll said, “especially when you look at the breadth of this legislation.”
Committee Vice Chair Rep. Jim McCullough, D- Williston, disagrees, calling the process “tortuous.”
“For me, I don’t like the onus being on our shoulders every year, and I perceived that to be a real slowdown for the benefit of industry,” McCullough said.
Business groups say they support consumer safety, but the bill, which includes a $2,000 reporting fee for each chemical to support the program, would be burdensome, especially for businesses already reporting to other states, Driscoll said.
But other businesses support stronger regulation, citing studies that estimate the national public health cost of childhood exposure to toxic chemicals at $76.6 billion annually.
“I hope that the Legislature looks beyond the immediate interests from entrenched industries to a healthier future for all Vermonters,” said Martin Wolf, director of product sustainability and authenticity for Seventh Generation.
He said regulating toxic chemicals in consumer products will open the market for a “green chemistry” industry.
“When you don’t regulate these chemicals,” Wolf said, “what you’re doing is codifying current practices and actually blocking innovation into new technologies.”
The committee is expected to vote on the bill Friday.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering a bill that would ban state legislatures from passing laws regulating toxic chemicals found in consumer products. The Vermont Attorney General on Thursday sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives opposing the legislation.
“Protecting Vermont’s children and adults from toxic chemicals is an important function of the State, which we share with the federal government,” Bill Sorrell said in a statement, “and we must ensure that we continue to have the legal authority.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article indicated that Burton Snowboards opposed S.239. The company in testimony said it supports the bill’s intent but preferred a federal law or a version that aligned more closely with other states.