Washington state has done it again, being the first state in the country to take a legal stand against a toxic chemical.
The Legislature this week voted to phase out cooper in brake pads, provided there are reasonable alternatives and that research continues to suggest that brake pads are contributing significant amounts of toxic copper. The bill is Senate Bill 6557.
This last point about research — about the need to know more about the alternate states of copper in the environment — was raised by Silverdale resident Bob Benze. I covered his questions and success in adding an amendment to the bill in the March 1 edition of the Kitsap Sun.
Even at low levels, an ionic form of copper has been shown to affect the sense of smell in salmon, which can lead to confusion and reproductive failure. It has become a major concern, especially in urban areas. Here’s a fact sheet from the Washington Department of Ecology.
Ivy Sager-Rosenthal of the Washington Toxics Coalition supports the Puget Sound Partnership’s call for a full assessment of toxic chemicals flowing into Puget Sound and an increased focus on eliminating sources of such pollution.
Last week, Ted Sturdevant, director of Ecology, testified before Congress about actions taken by state governments, generally because the federal government has been slow to act. He and 12 other state environmental officials are calling for reform of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.
Washington was the first state to draft a formal policy phasing out persistent bioaccumulative toxics, or PBTs. This led to state laws phasing out mercury and toxic flame retardants. The latest legislation, finalized this week, will ban bisphenol-A in baby bottles and sports bottles.
Sturdevant spelled out three guiding principles for addressing
persistent toxic chemicals:
“First: before you allow a substance to be put into widespread use and commerce, it makes sense to take all reasonable measures to first make sure it is safe.
“Second: if science tells us that there are toxic chemicals that pose an urgent and unacceptable threat, government should be able to protect the public and ban those chemicals.
“Third: if we know with reasonable certainty that a particular substance is dangerous to people or the food chain and doesn’t break down; and if we know that allowing continued use of that substance will spread it far and wide; and if there is an alternative substance that could perform the same task much more safely; then the right policy is simple: stop using the dangerous substance, and use the safer alternative.”
These chemicals are called “persistent” for a reason, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are a shameful example of what can happen. The production of PCBs began in the 1920s. Despite their usefulness in a variety of applications, studies in the 1930s showed that this class of chemicals could be harmful to humans. Production increased, as did the problems, with few people paying attention to the long-term effects. In 1979, PCBs were finally banned, but even today they are still being found in animals, including humans.
PCBs are suspected of causing cancer and have been associated with developmental, reproductive and immune problems.
“This is a critical point; when we put persistent toxics out into the world, they persist. And if they turn out to be a problem, then the problem becomes enormous, and largely unsolvable. Once out, we cannot ever truly put the PBT genie back in the bottle. This has been an expensive lesson that we all should learn from — when we uncork that bottle, let’s be as sure as we can that it makes sense to do so.”
Principles proposed by the 13 state environmental officials calling for reforms in the Toxic Substances Control Act:
Require Chemical Data Reporting. Chemical and
product manufacturers should be required to develop and provide
chemical health and safety information, as well as exposure and use
data, including the presence of toxic chemicals in products and the
associated chemical hazards and risks, to regulators, businesses,
and the public.
Demonstrate Chemicals and Products are Safe. Manufacturers should provide the necessary information to regulators to conclude that new and existing chemicals and products in commerce are safe and do not endanger the public or the environment. The public has a right to expect that the products they use are safe.
Prioritize Chemicals of Concern. Government should identify and prioritize chemicals of concern in order to regulate the most problematic chemicals in commerce, and have the authority to take timely action to protect people and the environment. Sufficient resources should be made available to support these actions.
Protect the Most Vulnerable. Chemical regulation should be designed to protect the most vulnerable, including pregnant women and children.
Promote Safer Chemicals and Products. Based on green chemistry principles, manufacturers should be required to assess and identify safer alternatives to problematic chemicals of concern. Government should establish protocols for evaluating potential alternatives to chemicals of concern.
Address Emerging Contaminants. Emerging chemicals of concern, including nanoscale materials, need to be assessed for public and environmental safety before they go into widespread commerce and use.
Strengthen Federal Law & Preserve States’ Rights. States acknowledge the need for a strong federal chemical regulation system, while expressly preserving the authority of state and localities to implement measures to manage chemicals of concern.
Fund State Programs. Effective state-federal governance should enhance the role of states in TSCA implementation, promote data and information sharing, and provide sustained funding for state programs. The states are in a unique position to provide innovative, cost-effective solutions for chemicals of concern prioritization, interstate data sharing, and safer chemical alternatives assessments.