MONTPELIER — The state’s health commissioner would be able to regulate toxic chemicals in products intended for children under legislation that received preliminary approval from the Vermont House.
The 114-27 vote Tuesday, in the middle of a marathon day of debate over various bills, sets up a final vote in the House today on a bill that has major differences with a Senate-passed version.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, chairman of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, said the bill would protect Vermont’s children from toxic chemicals. Inaction in Congress “has forced the states to take action on their own,” he said.
The bill creates a list of 66 “chemicals of concern” that the health commissioner could either ban from products intended for children 12 and younger or require be noted on labels. The list is based on one already in use in the state of Washington.
The health commissioner would have the power to add chemicals to the list if a working board created by the legislation recommended doing so. The commissioner’s decision would also be reviewed by the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee.
Under the House bill, manufacturers or distributors of products with listed chemicals would have to pay a $200 fee every two years to the state. Previous iterations of the bill included a $2,000 one-time fee.
Deen said lawmakers who crafted the bill took into account some concerns by industry groups that opposed it.
“What we were not prepared to do was make this bill go away.” he said. “We are talking here about the safety of our children, and in the face of Congress’ inability to offer protection from the federal level we were determined to take action.”
Enforcement would fall under an existing consumer protection law. Violations could result in a penalty of up to $10,000 assessed by the state’s attorney general.
Ashley Orgain of Seventh Generation, a maker of green cleaning products, called for passage by the House in a news conference Tuesday before the House debate. She said the bill “is the most urgent task facing the Legislature.”
“Why? Roughly 85,000 chemicals are in use today, and the vast majority have entered our products, our homes and our bodies,” she said.
The Senate’s version of the bill includes all consumer products, not just those manufactured or marketed for children. Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said at the news conference that the Senate feels strongly about including all products.
“The concern that we’ve always had in the Senate is that protecting families is more than children, and as we look at the bill that the Senate passed to the House, there are some significant differences,” she said. “I think they probably will remain after today’s vote.”
The House and Senate are likely to appoint members to a conference committee to hash out the differences. Plenty of businesses and industry groups — including IBM, Keurig Green Mountain and the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. — are looking on with extreme interest and using local lobbying firms to further their interests.
William Driscoll, vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, said the House version is an improvement “relative to what the Senate passed, but still concerning.”
He said such regulation should be done at the federal level for consistency across the country. At least three other states already exercise similar regulatory power.
Additionally, Driscoll said the authority given to the Department of Health under the legislation would be “beyond the scope of what the Department of Health would generally do.”
The working group should be coming up with recommendations to the Legislature, he said.
With the bill likely headed for a conference committee, industry is worried about whether the scaled-back House version will prevail.
“I think, certainly, if the bill did go to conference, we’d be very concerned that what progress the House has made would be undone,” Driscoll said.
Deen, speaking at the news conference Tuesday, said the House and Senate will find common ground before the legislative session ends, which is slated to happen at the end of next week.
“Ginny and I have worked on some tough issues in the past and we’ve always been able to reach agreement, and I’m absolutely confident we will in this case also,” Deen said.
Advocacy groups hailed the House action Tuesday as a victory for children and families. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, took a swipe at business and industry groups that oppose the bill.
“I guess we kind of expect Associated Industries and big oil to oppose children’s protection legislation, and that’s bad enough,” Burns said.
“But when toy makers care more about defending the toxic chemicals in their products than the children who play with them, then I think they ought to reconsider their line of work,” he said.
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