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Chemical Regulation

Washington state targets toxic chemicals

Legislature passes bill to protect people, wildlife from harmful substances in consumer products

by Britt E. Erickson
April 24, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 17


Orca whales in the Salish Sea, with the Olympic Mountains behind them.
Credit: Shutterstock
Washington state has passed a bill to regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products that threaten people and endangered orcas.

Lawmakers in the state of Washington have cleared a bill aimed at protecting people and wildlife from toxic chemicals in consumer products. The legislation, which Gov. Jay Inslee (D) is expected to sign, requires state agencies to identify and regulate classes of chemicals that pose a health risk to sensitive populations such as pregnant women and children and endangered species like orcas.

“The same toxic chemicals found in our homes and bodies are also found in wastewater, storm water, sediments, and fish and wildlife,” Mindy Roberts, director of the Puget Sound Program at the Washington Environmental Council, an advocacy group, says in a statement. “While orcas do not use consumer products like TVs, chemicals from these products build up in our indoor environments and eventually make their way into the outdoor environment.”

The bill targets several chemical classes, including phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, polychlorinated biphenyls, alkylphenol ethoxylates, bisphenols, and organohalogen flame retardants. It gives the Washington State Department of Ecology authority to ban such chemicals in consumer products if the agency determines that safer alternatives are available.

“Washington state is leading the way, showing other states and the nation how to protect communities and the environment from toxic threats,” says Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States, a network of environmental health advocacy groups. “This victory is especially important given that the federal administration is failing to protect the health of people and the environment from harmful chemicals.”

An overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 2016 gave the US Environmental Protection Agency new authorities to regulate toxic chemicals. Chemical manufacturers supported TSCA reform to stop states from creating a patchwork of different chemical laws. Environmental groups claim that the EPA is not using those authorities, so states like Washington are taking matters into their own hands, creating the very laws that chemical manufacturers fought to stop.

“By establishing a stronger, robust federal chemical regulatory program, the 2016 amendments to TSCA provide important regulatory certainty to the business community,” the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, says in an emailed statement. TSCA reform also “relieves state governments of the need to invest significant resources in the complex job of regulating chemicals,” the group says.


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