Alissa Keny-Guyer Takes Toxics Fight to Washington

While she plans to keep fighting for toxics disclosure at the state level, the state legislator has her eyes set on toxics disclosure reform nationwide
Portland-based gDiapers entered the marketplace just as "sustainable" and "green" hit the mainstream marketing lexicon. Founded by a couple who were contemplating having a child soon, and horrified after they learned that disposable diapers -- which can take up to 500 years to decompose -- make up about one-third of landfill waste, the company decided to manufacture reusable diaper covers, paired with inserts that can be flushed or thrown away. Cofounders Jason and Kim Graham-Nye also wanted to make a product that would use fewer harmful chemicals, to protect babies' skin as well as the environment, and put parents' minds at ease. 
 
Even more bluntly, being able to say a product is safer for consumers and the environment gives a company a competitive edge.
 
The problem, said JoLynn Mitchell, gDiaper's vice president of marketing, is that there's so little transparency around the presence of certain chemicals in consumer products that it's difficult to know what's in the source materials. For instance, gDiaper developed a baby wipe that contained a chemical shown to cause harm in certain conditions, but wasn't even aware of that until customers started contacting the company. The existing research only showed that the chemical was dangerous if ingested in copious amounts, and there was no data on whether smaller amounts were safe on a baby's skin -- which is precisely what gDiaper management wanted to know.
 
"I'm looking for transparency. I'm looking for ways to differentiate myself in the industry," Mitchell told The Lund Report. Last week she, along with Oregon legislator Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland) and a cohort that included public health professionals and environmental activists, traveled to Washington, D.C. to talk to elected officials and staff about the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013, a bipartisan bill that amends the Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976.
 
Keny-Guyer was the chief sponsor of the Toxics Disclosure for Healthy Kids Act, which sought to require toy manufacturers to disclose whether their products contained a list of 19 chemicals. That bill died in the Senate this spring. While Keny-Guyer has declared her intention to revive the bill next year, she told The Lund Report she went to Washington, D.C. because she’s convinced that having "a patchwork of state laws" is an incomplete solution to the problem.
 
"States need to act -- number one, to protect their citizens, and number two, to put pressure on the federal government," Keny-Guyer said.
 
The delegation included OHSU psychiatrist Dr. Joel Nigg, whose research focuses on the effects of certain chemicals on brain development, including a recent study that showed a strong correlation between lead poisoning and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He told Congressional officials that disclosing the presence of harmful chemicals will save money – while Mitchell presented the business case.
 
But the Chemical Safety Improvement Act doesn’t go far enough to protect consumers, said Keny-Guyer, who called the federal bill “very weak.” It’s a bipartisan bill that reauthorizes and reforms the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act and would require safety evaluations, prioritize chemicals review and screen new chemicals for safety. 
 
The delegation also told officials -- including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and staff members from the rest of Oregon's Congressional delegation, as well as Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D.-N.M.) -- they'd like new toxics legislation to remove the red tape that makes it difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to ban a chemical once it's been determined as  harmful.
 
"The EPA's hands are tied. If the EPA identifies a chemical that's bad, it would take 8 to 10 years to take it off the market," Mitchell said. "We're not saying the chemical companies are bad. We're just saying there are alternatives, and we want to regulate the ones that are out there that have been shown to cause harm."
Elicia Miller, a nursing manager for the Benton County Health Department who joined the D.C. delegation, was excited to participate in an effort to prevent health problems rather than treat them.
 
"We teach families how to cope," Miller said. "This was really eye opening to go really upstream and say wow, you know, it would be really nice to trust if what we were buying was safe and what was around us was safe." 
 
The Chemical Safety Improvement Act was the subject of two hearings this summer, but has yet to receive a vote. Keny-Guyer admitted she wasn’t certain about the status of this legislation, but said, "There's a lot of hope now that the FDA just banned trans fats. They're starting to connect science to policy. But it's just hard in Washington, D.C. where there's a lot of gridlock."
 
Christen McCurdy can be reached at christen@thelundreport.org.
 
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