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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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Protect State Innovation by Protecting Prop 65

Posted by on October 18, 2013

Caroline Cox

About five years ago, my youngest daughter was heading off to her first real job, teaching at a high school in an isolated town in northern Maine. Before she left on the long drive to Maine she took advantage of her last chance to shop in a big city. Most of her purchases were great, but there was one item - a red wallet from H & M - that I didn't want her to keep. A wallet doesn’t seem like it could be a health hazard, but one of my projects at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) at that time was to test purses and wallets for lead. Back then, we were finding many of these accessories were tainted with high levels of lead – especially bright red or yellow items because lead is often in the pigments.  

Since then, CEH has used a California law called Proposition 65 to reach legal agreements with over two hundred companies that were selling purses and other fashion accessories made with lead pigments. Proposition 65 is a right-to-know consumer protection law that allows us to negotiate legal agreements with companies to remove toxic chemicals from their products.  Our agreements have ended health threats from lead in purses, wallets and other accessories sold nationwide. H & M was a leader, one of the first companies to take action, but now almost the entire fashion accessory industry has changed.

And those lead-containing fashion accessories are just one example of ordinary things that CEH has cleaned up using this vital law. CEH has eliminated health threats to children and families from thousands of products, including:

  • arsenic in wood playground structures,
  • cadmium in jewelry,
  • lead in candy,
  • lead in lunchboxes,
  • lead in baby bibs.

(If you’d like to know more about these examples, and more, look for "How a California Law Makes Air, Water, and Products Safer for Children and Families Nationwide" on the Center for Environmental Health website.)

It may surprise you that a small nonprofit organization, and not the government, is keeping unsafe products out of stores. It may surprise you even more that the federal government does not already require companies to make sure their products are safe from chemical health threats before they are sold in stores. Inexplicably, current laws do not provide government protections to ensure that children, families, communities, and workers are safe from toxic chemicals.

Now, the Senate is considering the first major update to federal chemical policy since the 1970's.  But unfortunately, as currently drafted, the so-called Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) does little to change this terrible situation. Instead, the new law would create regulatory black holes and lead to endless delays in health-protective action. The bill could also prevent federal, state, and local governments from taking action to protect Americans from most of the 85,000 chemicals used in commerce today. Under the proposed CSIA, Proposition 65 and many other proven-effective laws in other states and localities could be invalidated.  In short, CSIA would be even less effective than current federal laws on toxic chemicals, and worse, undermine (pre-empt) state and local government’s protections of children and families.

In response to the bill's pre-emption provisions, the California Attorney General's office wrote:  "California has been a leader in enacting laws that protect public health and the environment, and has served as a laboratory for innovation for other states and the federal government. Many of the innovative laws that California has enacted are jeopardized by [CSIA]."

No one should have to worry about toxic chemicals when they shop, whether it’s someone proudly heading off to her first real job or people doing shopping for their families. We need strong, innovative state laws like Proposition 65 to keep store shelves safe. And we need strong federal laws that make use of the lessons learned by the states. CEH supports repairing our existing broken system, but the CSIA needs major improvements before it can honestly be called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act.  


Loren Kramer said ..

It's about time the Federal government catches up with the times on toxic chemical challenges in our society.

November 13, 2013

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