When Maine lawmakers several years ago considered banning some chemicals deemed harmful to health that were used in products sold here, one of the first arguments made in opposition was that such action would result in a patchwork quilt of regulations among the 50 states. Such inconsistencies would make it difficult for manufacturers and ultimately cut Maine off from some products, which in turn would hurt businesses and consumers. Enforcement also would be a problem, critics of the proposal also charged.
And perhaps the most persuasive opposition argument was that Maine should wait for the federal government to enact a comprehensive approach to banning harmful chemicals. A bill now before Congress, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, would do just that. The bill would replace the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.
Maine’s Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins could provide key support to that law, which is a reasonable and measured approach to protecting health, by co-sponsoring the bill.
In spite of the many naysayers in Maine, the Legislature acted last year to ban b isphenol A, a synthetic used in some plastics. There is strong scientific evidence that it is an endocrine disruptor, possibly causing serious developmental problems in infants and children.
The state action did not cause widespread economic harm. In fact, argues Mike Belliveau of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, consumers actually were ahead of policy makers on the issue of BPA, demanding that food and beverage products eliminate the chemical.
Though the fight over BPA pit the new Republican governor and Legislature against health advocates — remember Gov. LePage’s “little beards” crack? — Maine has acted to eliminate other chemicals that cause concern, and done so in a deliberative, cautious way. In recent years, flame retardants were removed from foam cushions in furniture, pajamas and electronics, and 10 years ago, mercury thermometers were banned.
The connection between the burgeoning use of synthetic chemicals and disease is one the public understands. About 10 years ago a majority of Americans believed that the chemicals found in products on store shelves had been tested for health concerns. Today, there is widespread skepticism about product safety, no doubt driven by news stories about lead in toys and volatile chemicals in drywall made in China.
And most significantly, a strong majority of Americans and Mainers favor stricter regulation of substances. A recent poll found that 74 percent favor a stronger government hand in such regulation.
The Safe Chemicals Act would not be overly onerous; our retail products won’t be made solely of wood and hemp if it passes. Its advocates note that the law would have the Environmental Protection Agency sort chemicals into very high, high, medium and low concern categories. Rather than burden EPA with the scientific inquiry, chemical manufacturers would have to prove their substances are safe to come into contact with people.
On Thursday, Nov. 17, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works will host a hearing on the proposal. Sen. Snowe worries the law could create “needlessly burdensome reviews,” but a bipartisan compromise may be in the works, Sen. Collins’ office reports.
The effort is worthwhile. The weak economy should not be used as an excuse to put health at risk, especially when major consumer retailers are asking the federal government to lead.