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September 30, 2015

Chemical alternatives and hazards debated

Legislation that would require the disclosure, reduction or replacement of toxic chemicals in consumer goods was panned Tuesday by industry groups who said it imposes a burden without improving safety, while supporters of the bills shared emotional testimony urging lawmakers to take action they said would protect the public.

Sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Donnelly and Rep. Jay Kaufman, a bill titled "An Act for Healthy Families and Businesses" (H 696/S 397) would establish a process to identify toxic chemicals in consumer products, noting that safer alternatives exist to many chemicals that have been linked to chronic diseases.

Among the bill's supporters was Laura Spark, a Boston mother who said that her sister's death from cancer prompted a fear of losing her children as well, causing her to avoid products containing chemicals like BPA.

A component of some plastics and resins, BPA has been found by the FDA to be safe at very low levels, though some studies have linked it to a variety of adverse health effects. Spark said she didn't have the information available to know that BPA was in sippy cups, baby bottles and jugs of bottled water she had been using with her daughters.

"I would not have bothered with any of those things had I known that they contained chemicals linked to breast cancer, but I didn't know," Spark said.

In 2010, the state Public Health Council voted to ban the use of bisphenol-A in baby bottles and cups. Health activists at the time applauded the council's vote but said the measure was "inadequate" and called on the state to regulate the use of BPA in infant formula and baby food packaging, as well as reusable food and beverage containers.

Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat, and Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, also put forth a bill (H 697) that would require manufacturers to notify the Department of Environmental Protection of toxic chemicals in children's products.

Another bill from Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, creates a committee that would recommend funding mechanisms to support development and assessment of substitutes for toxic chemicals (S 453).

The toxic chemical bills drew criticism from trade groups, who said that chemicals in question are often safe at low doses and their existing products do not pose a danger. David Garriepy of the Toy Industry Association made the comparison to salt, where a little can be useful in cooking but excessive quantities become harmful.

"Just because it has certain toxic traits does not mean it is toxic," Garriepy said.

Sen. Anne Gobi, the committee's co-chair, brought up that the bills had been filed repeatedly in the past, while European countries have passed their own regulations dealing with toxic chemicals.

"We hear about what's being done in European nations, where companies have been able to acquiesce to their concerns," Gobi said after hearing testimony from the American Cleaning Institute. "It always comes back to, if you're willing to do it in Europe, why aren't you willing to do it here?"

In response, Jacob Cassady, the institute's associate director for legislative affairs, told Gobi his group's member companies "comply with the laws where the laws are."

Representatives from the Toy Industry Association and American Chemistry Council pointed to several existing federal laws that regulate their products and forbid harmful toxic substances.

"You heard the word toxic thrown around a lot," said Stephen Rosario of the American Chemistry Council. "It's a very highly charged word, but in this space, what we really need to be looking at is hazard and exposure. That is what gets you to safety and what these bills don't look at."

Margo Golden, president of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition's board of directors, asked the committee to consider costs beyond what would be borne by retailers who had to comply with new regulations.

"Please also remember the cost to society of toxic chemical exposures," said Golden, who has been living with metastatic breast cancer. "The cost to society is devastating to the economy, the cost of cancer -- for example, the cost of my chemotherapy each month is $7,000."

Speaking on behalf of the Can Manufacturers Institute, epidemiologist Julie Goodman said BPA has been widely studied, and the body of scientific evidence does not show exposure at a normal rate causes adverse effects.

But others called for at least disclosure of chemical content, calling it a piece of information that can empower consumers to make their own choices.

"You can't manage what you can't measure," said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts director for Clean Water Action. "We may have the next DDT or asbestos or lead sitting in our homes, and we probably do, in the form of flame retardants in our furniture or additives to plastic."

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