March 13, 2013 — Rep. Jason Conger, the Republican representative from Bend, knows what it’s like to be a parent frightened about raising a child in a toxic environment.
He was living in an old house in Massachusetts with his wife and 10-month old daughter when a doctor’s report showed she may have lead poisoning.
“It was an incredibly frightening experience, almost indescribable,” Conger said. “The well-baby visits test for lead exposure. We got swept into a safety net. Her initial test was very, very high.”
The results proved to be negative — the lead was on her fingers, but not in her blood. “We found another place that was newer without lead-based paint immediately,” Conger said. His daughter is now a healthy 13-year-old girl.
Lurking in toys and other products designed for small children are some other pretty hazardous chemicals — formaldehyde, Bisphenol-A, phthalates and even arsenic.
Conger is sponsoring a bipartisan measure with Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, to require manufacturers to test and report hazardous chemicals in their toys — and then take steps to replace them with safer chemical compounds.
Keny-Guyer has been working with the Oregon Environmental Council on a toxic toys bill for more than a year, and a similar measure appeared in the short session in 2012 before dying in committee.
“They already have to report in Washington,” said Keny-Guyer. Unlike the previous bill or the Washington measure, House Bill 3162 adds an additional layer requiring that manufacturers then take steps to stop using poisonous chemicals in their products.
An early report from Washington showed the toxins in 435 child’s products, and the worst offender was Wal-Mart, which had 144 toys that contained the chemicals.
Some of those chemicals exist at less than a hundred parts per million, yet may not be safe at any level.
“We don’t really know which products these chemicals are in and at what levels,” said Sarah Petras, the environmental health program director for the Oregon Environmental Council.
Conger said few parents can learn how to evaluate and decide which toy products are safe for their children because there is so little information available. “The state has a clear interest in providing that information and protection,” Conger said.
The Toxics Disclosure for Healthy Kids Act has bipartisan sponsors in the Senate as well: Sen. Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward, D-Beaverton and Sen. Brian Boquist, R-McMinnville. The bill has also been sponsored by Rep. David Gomberg, D-Newport. Despite the bipartisan support, HB 3162 could still face serious opposition from the chemicals industry.
HB 3162 works in three parts — first, a list of 19 chemicals of concern has been identified, using Washington’s list of 66 chemicals of concern for children and cross-referencing it with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Toxics Focus List.
The list includes heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic, carcinogens like formaldehyde and plastics additives like BPA and phthalates that cause endocrinal health problems.
“Phthalates are one of those chemicals that we have the most exposure because they’re used in such large quantities,” said Erika Schroeder, an ecologist with the Washington Toxics Coalition, which helped pass the Washington Children’s Safe Products Act in 2008.
But Schroeder also explained that the amount of phthalates in individual toys was less important than the cumulative effect of these chemicals showing up in so many things. Phthalates are used to soften plastics such as polyvinyl chloride or PVC and can be found in all kinds of toys, flooring and household products.
“Children living in homes with vinyl flooring are more likely to have asthma,” Schroeder said. Phthalates also have shown to cause reduced testosterone and stunted testicles in mammals.
Phthalates were specifically called out and limited to one part per thousand by the Federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which was passed after Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. found lead paint in toys sold in the U.S. Capitol Gift Shop. The Washington state bill further limits their allowable concentration.
Second, manufacturers of most children’s toys with revenues over $5 million will have to report publicly that their products are using these chemicals.
Conger said they attempted to draft a bill to hit a sweet spot where large manufacturers with knowledge of their products’ chemical makeup would fall under the law while a small business owner with a toy workshop would not be penalized.
Third, manufacturers will have five years to either phase out the chemical or go through a process explaining why replacing the product is either not feasible or poses no danger in its current form. Manufacturers would also have to replace it with a chemical proven to be less hazardous.
“I agree that BPA should be banned,” said Keny-Guyer. “But does it help if we ban it and they replace it with something else? You have to replace it and it has to be less harmful.”
Petras said some governments, such as Multnomah County, have banned Bisphenol-A or BPA, only to see manufacturers replace the toxin with Bisphenol-S, which carries its own serious health hazards. “Not only would they be not able to use any other chemicals on the list, they’d have to replace them with a safer alternative,” Petras said.
Testing and administration of the law would fall under the Oregon Health Authority, which would charge fees to manufacturers and enact civil penalties on those who refuse to comply. Fees and penalties will set up a special High Priority of Chemicals of Concern for Children’s Health Fund.
A fiscal impact study has not been completed that will determine whether other financial assistance is needed to run the program.
Petras said they modeled the bill after the successful Washington legislation to help make it easier for toy manufacturers to report, since most sell children’s products in both states.
A number of children’s products such as BB guns and chemistry sets are exempted, as well as some curious items like tricycles and roller skates. Schroeder said Washington excluded some of these items when the bill was being amended at the request of the business community and because Gov. Christine Gregoire did not want to discourage educational toys.
“Manufacturers are already reporting on these specific items, and by using Washington's list they can most easily report this same information to Oregon without additional requirements or conditions,” said Jared Ishkanian, spokesman for the environmental council.
Both the Washington law and the Oregon bill are also focused primarily on very young children, not adolescent boys with BB guns.
HB 3162 has been referred to the House Health Committee but a hearing date has not yet been set. It would also have to be heard by the Joint Committee on Ways & Means because of its fiscal impact so its fate is unknown.