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State Lawmakers Take On Chemicals

Pending bills target specific chemicals but also eye establishment of substances of concern lists

by Cheryl Hogue
March 3, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 9

Bisphenol A, certain flame retardants, and widely used antibacterial agents are targets of extensive national-level discussion but little action as yet. So the states are stepping in.

Dozens of the nearly 100 chemical-related bills introduced in 33 states thus far this year focus on banning specific substances in products. Some of the chemicals are no stranger to playing the lead role in state legislation. The plastics additive BPA is one of those substances. But state lawmakers are also expanding their hit lists to include products containing three chlorinated phosphate flame retardants and antibacterial compounds.

Structures of TCEP, TDCPP, and TCPP.

Beyond chemical-specific legislation, a new trend is emerging. At least 10 states are now considering bills that would establish chemicals of concern lists, according to a database of state legislation compiled by Safer States. The group is a network of environmental and health organizations that tracks chemical-related bills in states and provides technical assistance on the development of chemical policies. This new type of legislation would establish multistep chemical policies in states, says Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States.

The growing interest of state legislatures in regulating chemicals and developing their own chemical policies is being driven by frustration with the lack of federal action on the safety of chemicals. This activity, however, has the chemical industry worried about the growing patchwork of state laws.

“This state-by-state approach to chemical management has created confusion for consumers and businesses that operate or sell products across the country,” says American Chemistry Council (ACC)spokesman Warren Robinson. Instead, the chemical industry trade group is calling for Congress to modernize the federal law governing commercial chemicals, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. If the law is updated, Robinson says, consumers will have greater confidence in the safety of chemicals, eliminating the need for state action.

But states are not waiting for federal action. Take, for example, the trend toward state chemical policies. Doll describes these new efforts as “list and disclosure.” The state-specific legislation would require state regulators to compile a list of chemicals of high concern. Next, the bills would require manufacturers to disclose the presence of the listed chemicals in products sold in the state, she explains.

In some cases, legislation would also require that state to take further action. For instance, a measure in Massachusetts would create a process for identifying “the safest feasible alternatives” to its chemicals of concern. That bill would establish a fee on manufacturers, wholesalers, or distributors of consumer products containing substances of concern to encourage businesses to find and adopt safer alternatives. Other measures, like one pending in Michigan, would require the state to come up with a plan for protecting children from its chemicals of high concern.

The majority of chemical-related bills now pending in statehouses, however, would ban specific substances. Three chlorinated flame retardant compounds constitute an example of taking aim at chemicals. State bills are targeting tris(2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP), tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCPP), and tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TCPP). The three flame retardants have been used in flexible foams, including those used for furniture.

The European Union tightly controls TCEP, classifying it as a substance of very high concern because of its reproductive toxicity. In the U.S., ACC says its members don’t make TCEP and that the substance is being eliminated from domestic product manufacturing. But it’s still being added to some foams made in China.

TDCPP, meanwhile, was removed from children’s sleepwear in the 1970s because it is a mutagen. It is listed under California’s Proposition 65, a product-labeling law, because of concerns about carcinogenicity. And TCPP is structurally similar to TCEP and TDCPP. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is assessing all three of these flame retardants and intends to either regulate or endorse each as safe for specific uses.

Some state bills on these flame retardants, such as those in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and Massachusetts, would ban the sale of children’s products containing any of the three substances. Legislation in other states focuses on products with only one or two of them.

Also a focus of state legislation are antibacterial compounds used in personal care items and cleaning products. A bill in New York would ban the sale of items such as soaps, antiperspirants, shampoos, sunscreens, toothpastes, and toothbrushes that contain triclosan, triclocarban, or derivatives of these compounds.

A separate measure in New York would ban the state government from buying hand soaps and cleaning products that contain the antibacterial chemicals, although it would exempt items used solely in medical facilities. This bill is similar to a procurement policy that Minnesota adopted last year against soaps and cleaning products with triclosan (C&EN, March 11, 2013, page 8).

Introduction of New York’s bills follows a December 2013 proposal by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for soaps and bodywashes that are labeled as antibacterial (C&EN, Dec. 23, 2013, page 4). It would require manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are safe for daily use and are more effective than ordinary soap in preventing the spread of germs. At the same time, some product makers are phasing out the use of these chemicals in response to pressure from consumer groups. Activists cite concerns about the antibacterial compounds’ potential to disrupt the endocrine system or their potential to lead to drug-resistant bacteria.

And BPA, an estrogen mimic, remains on the agenda of many state lawmakers. Bills that would ban the substance in certain types of food or beverage containers or in cash register receipts are pending in 14 states. Some of the measures specify that BPA alternatives must be “least toxic replacement chemicals” or that substitute compounds cannot be carcinogens or cause reproductive toxicity.

Debate over these and other bills will continue in state legislatures over the coming months. Some measures will be rejected, and some will likely be enacted. And as long as the U.S. Congress lets the outdated federal system for chemical safety remain unchanged, states will no doubt continue to expand their role in controlling substances.  


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