As Washington stalls, 24 legislatures move to make environment less toxic

For a timely reminder that Team Trump can’t halt all progress toward an American environment less toxic to human health, consider a new survey of state-level lawmaking around the country.

More than 120 measures aimed at reducing hazardous chemical exposure in everyday life are moving in American legislatures this year, according to the latest annual count by the Safer States coalition.  The tally has grown by a dozen in the last couple of weeks and may increase further.

Minnesota is among the 24 states considering new protections and, as usual, is something of a leader in the pack with seven measures introduced. Only three states are more ambitious: New York with 44, Massachusetts with 10, and Rhode Island with nine.

The most popular issues and initiatives nationally, according to the coalition:

  • Stopping manufacture or sale of residential furniture, mattresses, electronics and certain children’s products with toxic flame retardants, particularly organohalogens (16 states).
  • Setting new limits on the allowable amounts in drinking water of the perfluoroalkyl chemicals known as PFASs, in some cases with additional restrictions on the use of firefighting foams that contain the chemicals, and cleaning up contaminated water sources (seven states).
  • Requiring product labels and manufacturers’ websites to disclose more chemical ingredients that have raised health concerns, especially in fragrances and cleaning products (“at least” seven states).
  • Halting the use of burger wraps, microwave popcorn bags and other food packaging whose nonstick coatings are made with PFASs (seven states — curiously, mostly on the east and west coasts).

Of the measures under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature, five fall into the first three categories above.

A sixth would curb use of lead ammunition by deer hunters, and a seventh would place a moratorium on new athletic fields built with “crumb rubber” — made from ground-up tires — while the state health department examines the health risks they may pose, especially in school settings.

Crumb rubber is an emerging, contentious issue nationally and has generated considerable concern in Minneapolis and Edina in the past year. Restrictions on its use are also under consideration in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut and Virginia.

Focused on harmful chemicals

Safer States is a network of organizations focused on safeguarding human health — and, therefore, overall environmental health — by reducing reliance on harmful chemicals.

The membership is pretty mainstream — Clean Water Action, Vermont Conservation Voters, Oregon Environmental Council — and includes Minnesota’s Healthy Legacy, itself a coalition of 38 groups whose missions range widely.  (Examples: the Autism Society of Minnesota, Eureka Recycling, the Minneapolis League of Women Voters, the Minnesota Parent Teacher Association, Minnesota Nurses Association and Minnesota Public Health Association.)

But Safer States’ positions are not timid, and its criticism of federal inaction — especially of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — predate the current administration. Indeed, its annual Bill Tracker effort has been tracking state-level action since the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, to make a consistent point that states aren’t waiting for EPA to fix every problem.

In announcing the 2017 findings, the organization aimed special criticism at the Trump EPA’s slow pace in implementing the so-called Lautenberg law, which updated the federal Toxic Substances Control Act for the first time since its enactment 40 years ago. Excerpts:

Despite an overhaul to the nation’s primary chemical safety law in 2016 that was intended to fix the broken chemical regulatory system, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has largely failed to take meaningful action to restrict toxic chemicals.  For example, in the last year the EPA rewrote a rule to make it more difficult to track the health impacts of PFOA, a chemical linked to cancer and other health effects, despite its presence in the drinking water of over 6 million Americans. The agency has also shelved plans to regulate a deadly chemical in some paint strippers despite increasing reports of fatalities associated with the use of the chemical,

A recent study by Harvard University showed that costs associated with environmental chemical exposures worldwide may exceed 10% of the global gross domestic product. “Chemicals that cause cancer and other diseases are costing us dearly, burdening our health care system and sending families into turmoil—much of which could be prevented with common sense reforms to chemical policies,” continued [executive director Gretchen Salter]. “States are stepping up to make sure that their residents, particularly those in low-income communities often over-burdened by pollution, no longer have to pay the price for chemical contamination.” 

It’s interesting to note that, by Safer States’ count, Minnesota is also a leader in past actions to reduce the risk of environmental exposure to chemical hazards: 10 successful efforts going back to 2007, more than any other state except Vermont (11), Illinois (14) and, no surprise, California (25).

In all, the group counts 173 significant measures adopted by 35 states since 2000. (Thanks only in part to Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin scores a perfect 0 in both current proposals and past actions counted by the Bill Tracker.)

Here’s the list of Minnesota actions by year of enactment:

2015: Banning specified toxic flame retardants from children’s products, mattresses, and residential upholstered furniture.

2014: Banning added lead and mercury from wheel weights, banning triclosan from hand sanitizers and soaps, modifying an existing formaldehyde ban.

2013: Banning formaldehyde from children’s products.

2013: Banning bisphenol-A in infant formula and children’s food containers.

2010: Banning cadmium in children’s jewelry.

2009: Generating a list of chemicals of high concern and priority chemicals, along with participation in Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse.

2009: Banning BPA ion sippy cups.

2007: Prohibiting schools from buying elemental mercury or instruments containing it, or storing previous purchases.

2007: Banning products containing two toxic flame retardants and requiring review of a third; looking at safer alternatives, fire safety, and any evidence regarding the potential harm to public health and the environment.

2007: Banning lead in jewelry.

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A highly interactive presentation of the Bill Tracker results can be found here; a map allows you to search the database state by state or issue by issue, and both current proposals and previously enacted measures are listed.

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