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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Chemical Policy Reform in Oregon

By Susan F. Katz, MD

Looking back at the history of environmental health reform in Oregon reveals a record with a few notable successes, and some failures. This is probably related to the fact that the State Legislature was captured in 1994 by the nationwide Republican conservative surge, and only recently has that grip on power loosened. A second relevant fact is that Oregon has been highly dependent on the forest products industries and an agricultural lobby.

OPSR has been involved in coalitions with other non profit organizations, such as the Oregon Environmental Council, Beyond Toxics, Health Care Without Harm, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeepers and others. We have had volunteer efforts at helping these coalitions voice the health concerns behind their drives for legislation.  We briefly had staff funding in the last decade and then our work was more coordinated with National policy particularly contributing to the Code Black work against coal, and through lobbying and testifying in the legislature.

Here are some highlights of environmental health achievements in Oregon.

  • The first standard for cleaner woodstoves was passed in 1983.
  • The first law in the nation to achieve Mercury reduction was passed in 2001, and included phasing out of the installation of mercury thermostats.
  • Adoption of some rules in 2003 to achieve reduction of toxic air pollution.
  • A law banning two toxic flame retardents that were found to be contaminating women’s breast milk was passed in 2005.
  • The strongest law in the nation banning deca-BDE was passed in 2009, and EPA followed suit with convincing the manufacturers to institute a voluntary withdrawal of that chemical.
  • Clean auto standards, similar to those in California, were adopted in 2006 to reduce tailpipe emissions, greenhouse gas emissions and toxic chemical emissions, such as benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and 1-3 butadiene.
  • Two bills were passed in 2009, limiting diesel bus exhaust caused by idling near schools, and limiting pesticide usage on public school properties.

However, two efforts to ban Bisphenol A (BPA)  from products for children under three have failed in the last few years , despite our efforts to help.

Oregon has higher asthma rates than the national average. Breast cancer risks are in the top ten highest , cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death, and autism and ADHD rates are higher than national rates.  All of these, as we know, have strong environmental triggers.  And our current campaign to stop the transport of coal through the Columbia River valley brings all these health issues into play, as we review the health effects of mercury , diesel particulates and PAHs.

We have worked in coalition with other environmental groups and local governmental agencies, to present the newer understanding of the special risks to the health of the unborn infant, newborns, children, reproductive aged adolescents, and the pregnant woman, as well as to older citizens.

Giving presentations about the risks of endocrine disruptors such as plastics and BPA , testifying about this subject in the legislature, and talking to investigative journalists have been our chief activities.

We believe that strong public support will be necessary to bring about any change at the legislative level.  To that end , investigative journalists may be  one of our best opportunities to educate the public. Consumers need to demand changes in our approach to adding toxic chemicals to our food and manufactured products. The bottom line remains the most sensitive line.

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