Our children should never be exposed to dangerous, toxic chemicals.
That’s an obvious, non-controversial position, right? The unfortunate truth, however, is that toxic chemical exposure remains a daily, ongoing threat to the health and safety of our children.
And we don’t mean that theoretically. Our children, right here in Vermont, are being exposed to potentially harmful substances on a daily basis.
Last fall, 16 Vermont elementary schools had their drinking water tested for lead as part of a pilot water testing program.
Every single one had at least some drinking water taps testing at 1 part per billion or higher of lead contamination, which exceeds health recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Meanwhile, Vermont store shelves continued to be stocked with toys, clothes and other children’s products containing substances like vinyl chloride, benzene, formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals.
These very real threats demand nothing less than bold, immediate action. Fortunately, there are steps our elected leaders and public officials can, and must, take to protect our kids.
On the matter of lead-contaminated drinking water in our schools, our elected officials have signaled that they recognize the seriousness of this issue. The governor called for lead testing in all schools during his inaugural address. Legislators, for their part, are working on a more comprehensive approach to the issue.
In the 16 schools where lead has already been detected, we’re calling on officials to move quickly to remediate the situation by removing all lead pipes and fixtures, and ensuring all water in these schools achieves the state’s health advisory level for lead.
Simultaneously, our elected officials should move forward to make sure all of our schools and child care facilities test their drinking water for lead and for PFAS chemicals as soon as possible and remediate any contaminated sites as quickly as possible.
As for the matter of potentially harmful children’s products on Vermont store shelves, we’ve already made some significant progress in this area. In 2014, Vermont enacted the Toxic-Free Families Act. That law identifies nearly 70 “chemicals of high concern to children” and requires manufacturers using any of those chemicals in children’s products sold in Vermont to report it to the state.
However, that law left room for much improvement. Perhaps most notably it created a cumbersome process whereby Vermont’s Commissioner of Health could only move to ban these dangerous products at the request of a working group comprised of chemical industry and public interest representatives. This process includes so much red tape that the commissioner is effectively and needlessly hamstrung, leaving dangerous products on Vermont shelves.
Last year, lawmakers passed legislation (S.103) that would have simplified this process and given the health commissioner the authority to take action against toxic products that threaten kids’ health. Vermonters will likely remember that Gov. Phil Scott sided with industry lobbyists and vetoed this legislation. A veto override effort fell just four votes short in the House.
We’re urging the Legislature to take this issue up again and, should the governor veto this bill again, do the right thing this time and put our children’s health and well-being ahead of industry interests by overriding a veto, and ensuring this important policy goes into law.
The truth is, if we’re not doing everything in our power to keep our children safe and healthy, we’re failing them. The harmful impacts of exposure to toxic chemicals like lead are lifelong and irreversible. This legislative session, we have an opportunity for serious action to protect our kids. Let’s take it.
Paul Burns is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Lauren Hierl is executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters.