Children's Toxic-Free Bill Headed Toward Senate Vote

The chief Senate supporter of SB 478 tells The Lund Report that despite the late session hour and onslaught of lobbying against the bill by special interests from corporate America, the Democratic supermajority in the Senate will hold, and a bill requiring manufacturers to report their use of toxic chemicals in children’s products, and begin a process to get rid of them, is expected to pass.

The Toxic-Free Kids Act has resurfaced and cleared a critical budget committee, with passage in the full Committee on Ways & Means expected next week.

From there, before it goes to the friendly House, Senate Bill 478 heads to the Senate floor -- the place where earlier bills have been known to die.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, passed it out of the Budget Subcommittee on Human Services Thursday, but warned he was uncertain of its fate in the Senate: “It has a difficult passage through the Senate,” he said.

The bill will also likely require Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to sit in on the Committee on Ways & Means to cast an extra vote of support, since a disproportionate makeup of the state’s budget committee gives lopsided power to Republican opponents if just one Democrat, such as Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, breaks with her party.

However, Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, this year’s chief Senate supporter, assured The Lund Report he had enough senators signed on to get the bill through the upper chamber, while explaining the delay : “We have the votes. I’m pretty confident. We’ve had the votes for a while. We just had some other budget bills we had to get through first.”

The Toxic-Free Kids Act requires the manufacturers and distributors of children’s products to report their use of toxic chemicals. If the products are geared toward children under 3 or are designed for use in the mouth or directly on the skin, manufacturers must take steps to remove and replace the chemical with a safer substance, or explain why the toxic chemical is not harmful.

The policy is designed to protect consumers from the flood of unsafe products that have been entering the country from China and exposing wide gaps in federal consumer safety laws -- gaps that the Republican Congress has been none too eager to close.

The budget committee tagged it with $88,000 for the Oregon Health Authority to get the process started, although future budgets will require greater funding. Eventually, the program will generate fees from manufacturers to offset some of the costs for analyzing products to go beyond the self-reporting of the industry.

Years-Long Battle with Strange Bedfellows

Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, has tried to get such a bill passed every year since she came into office in 2012, with policy assistance from the Oregon Environmental Council. This year, since the Senate has been the obstacle, responsibility for the bill has been passed to Edwards.

“The biggest story is the politics of it,” Edwards said. “It is tough to take on the American Chemistry Council and all the industries that they supply. It’s like taking on all of corporate America.”

Edwards and Bates both said that they’ve experienced some of the fiercest lobbying against them of any policy in their time in office. One of the most powerful lobbyists against SB 478 has been Paul Cosgrove, representing the American Forest & Paper Association -- a perhaps uncomfortable position, considering that Cosgrove also represents Legacy Health, which has pledged support for SB 478, in a letter co-signed by Moda Health and Oregon Health & Science University.

“This targeted bill addresses the most vulnerable age group, children, whose delicate developmental processes are easily disrupted,” reads the letter, signed by Dr. Joe Robertson, president of OHSU, Dr. Everett Newcomb of Legacy and Robin Richardson of Moda. “For example, if cells in the developing brain are harmed by exposure to mercury, lead, or solvents—or if important nerve connections fail to form—the child will likely suffer permanent and irreversible neurobehavioral dysfunction.

“The patients we serve—and all Oregonians—would benefit from public policies to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals. Many health impacts and associated healthcare costs could be reduced. Please support the Toxic-Free Kids Act.”

The list of chemicals span the gamut from outright poisons like cadmium, formaldehyde and arsenic to endocrine disruptors like phthalates and bisphenol-A. Based on a Republican suggestion, Edwards said this year’s bill has been simplified to apply to the 66 chemicals already reported in Washington -- not just the 19 chemicals identified in earlier bills.

Edwards said a partisan fault-line developed over whether lawmakers should just mandate reporting the chemicals or set up a program to require manufacturers to phase out the use of hazardous chemicals in children’s products.

“I’m very much for the reporting requirements,” said Rep. Duane Stark, R-Central Point. “My hang-up is that I don’t want to make an assumption and go to the phase-out.”

Edwards said that was a false compromise, however, because lobbyists against the bill knew that he had the votes to pass the more robust measure, and were only trying to head that off at the pass.

In earlier sessions, with Sen. Johnson casting the crucial vote on their side, Republicans and industry lobbyists had been able to defeat bills that called simply for reporting of hazardous chemicals in their products, legislation that mirrored a law in Washington. (Stark, a freshman legislator, had not had a chance to weigh in on earlier versions of the policy.)

Johnson receives substantial amounts of campaign money from the chemical industry and large manufacturers and votes accordingly. Since the Senate Democrats had only a simple majority from 2011 to 2014, Johnson could veto any legislation she didn’t like if it had no Republican support.

Betsy-Proof Majority

Labor unions and environmental groups led a campaign in 2014 to produce a “Betsy-proof” Democratic supermajority and ousted two Republican senators in Hillsboro and Albany. They won their campaign promoting policies like paid sick leave, the clean fuels law, and the toxic disclosures act.

Unlike the first two bills, SB 478 will still likely gain some GOP votes in the House, where Republicans are more moderate than their Senate counterparts. Rep. Mark Johnson of Hood River has sponsored the bill, and, along with Rep. Julie Parrish of West Linn, supported a similar measure when it passed the House in 2013. Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend has also indicated his support.

The earlier measure attracted six Republicans, partly built on the support of Buehler’s predecessor, former Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who sought his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2014. The policy was borne from the public health activism of Keny-Guyer, who has sought to adopt reporting standards for toxic materials in children’s products, similar to Oregon’s more liberal neighbors, and one up California and Washington by requiring companies doing business in Oregon to rid the shelves of products tainted by the chemicals.

Manufacturers of harmful toys would still have a long time before they would have to start replacing dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives -- something the legislation effectively puts off until 2023.

Edwards said an Oregon law could help compel the federal government and Congress to get serious about improving the law governing toxic materials in consumer products, as well as pave the way for state phase-out laws in California or the liberal Northeastern states.

If Congress does pass a law restricting the chemicals in the products covered by SB 478, the federal law would preempt Oregon’s law.

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