Wednesday, May 09, 2007

States and cities move to curb toxic substances the EPA hasn't

States and cities move to curb toxic substances the EPA hasn't
By Traci Watson, USA TODAY

States and cities are taking steps to ban toxic substances found in consumer goods ranging from TVs to baby bottles, rather than waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency or other federal agencies to yank them off the market.

Federal agencies "are not protecting the safety of the American public," says state Rep. Ross Hunter, a Democrat who helped push a chemical ban through the Washington Legislature. "If the federal government won't do it, then the states are going to have to do it."

Charles Auer, head of the EPA division that oversees toxic chemicals, says the agency does take action when the law allows it to do so. The EPA has enacted "control measures that we think are adequate to protect health and the environment," he says.

From California to Maine, state and local officials have reacted to new scientific studies that hint at health dangers from widely used chemicals. Some examples:

•Washington last month banned a chemical called Deca-BDE, as long as substitutes can be found. The EPA is studying the chemical and has no plans to ban it. The chemical, commonly found in upholstery, helps keep items from catching fire and has been linked to liver problems in animals.

"We keep getting more and more scientific evidence of the kind of harm that it can cause to people," Hunter says.

•California's air-pollution agency last month set limits on formaldehyde fumes wafting from particle board and other wood products. Formaldehyde acts as a glue, but the EPA believes its fumes can cause cancer. No federal law allows the EPA to regulate fumes from finished products, agency spokesman John Millet says.

In January, state officials decided to ban the chemical perchloroethylene, which most dry cleaners use to launder clothes and other items. The EPA in July restricted use of the chemical but did not ban it.

"Our responsibility is to the citizens of California," said Dimitri Stanich, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

•Maine's Legislature held a hearing last week on a bill to bar the sale of children's plastic products, such as baby bottles, containing a chemical called bisphenol A or others called phthalates. These widely used chemicals help give items their texture, but both have been linked to developmental problems in lab animals. The EPA is studying these chemicals and has not taken a stance on them yet.

"The federal law that controls (these chemicals) has terrible loopholes," says bill sponsor state Rep. Jon Hinck, a Democrat.

The main federal law about chemicals has drawn attention for being ineffective. The Toxic Substances Control Act makes it "costly and time consuming" for the EPA to get data about chemicals' safety, according to a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog.

Since the law was passed in 1976, the EPA has banned or cut production of only five existing chemicals or groups of chemicals that were on the market when the law was passed, the GAO said.

The EPA defends its record on the chemicals that states and cities have tackled. Auer says that in some cases, there is too little scientific evidence to justify a federal ban. When the evidence is strong enough, the law gives the agency the power to act, he says.

Representatives of the chemical industry question states' ability to regulate chemicals on their own. They say weighing a chemical's risks and benefits is so complex and technical it's best left to the EPA.

"The resources and expertise available to the federal government would provide for better … decision making," says Steve Russell of the American Chemistry Council, a group of chemical manufacturers. Even so, he concedes, "We understand the inclination to act."

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