Vermont has enacted a variety of commercial chemicals laws over the last decade in response to specific issues. For example, 18 V.S.A. § 1511 limits the concentration of phthalates in products intended for children under 3 years old; 9 V.S.A. § 2973-2980 similarly regulates flame retardants; 18 V.S.A. § 1512 places limits on BPA in food and beverage containers; and 18 V.S.A. § 1781 limits the use of cleaning products in schools to those that are “environmentally preferable.”
Now the state is moving to a more comprehensive approach. This week, the Vermont 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. The bill, S.239, needs final approval from the Senate before moving to the House.
The proposed new regulatory scheme takes a page from the California playbook. It would authorize the state Department of Health to maintain a list of potentially toxic chemicals –“chemicals of high concern” — and require manufacturers to report their consumer products that contain these chemicals. Regulatory authority also includes powers that range from labeling to banning. 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.
If enacted, S.239 would have the health department publishing a list by July 1, 2016 and regulating per it the following year. Manufacturers would pay up to $2,000 for each chemical of high concern, to fund the Agency of Natural Resources and the health department to implement the program. Finally, the bill includes exemptions for electronic devices, ammunition (including lead shot), certain pesticides, tobacco, foods and beverages, and motor vehicle components.
The bill’s supporters and opponents separate along usual lines, with the business community generally lining up against the bill and public health and environmental non-profits supporting. Interestingly, firefighters have come out as vocal supporters. Ben O’Brien, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, spoke about toxic chemicals in firefighting gear and burning furniture 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.”
Senator Ginny Lyons, the bill’s lead sponsor, echoed this point: “We want to eliminate toxic chemical in our state from personal products, from products that are in our homes and our residences 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.” This concern is taking hold across the U.S.
UPDATE: As of 4/2/14, the Senate approved S.239 and it’s now over in the House. According to the Center for Public Intergrity, Vermont’s action puts it in the mainstream of a massive state commercial chemicals reform effort: “At least 442 bills involving toxics and chemicals have been filed in 2014, or refiled from previous sessions, covering 39 states, according to an environmental health legislation database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A year earlier, 399 such bills were filed and the year before that, the database shows, more than 500.” Put simply by Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency for Natural Resources, who also serves on the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state leaders: “I’ve been personally to the statehouse here in Vermont for five years in a row. ‘Let’s wait and see what the feds do. It’s getting pretty old.”