March 4, 2010

For toxic-chemical reformist, vindication

— Deborah Rice couldn't help feeling a bit vindicated this week when the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for an overhaul of the nation's toxic-chemical control law.

The announcement was long overdue, according to Maine's state toxicologist. And Maine appears to have helped bring it about, by becoming the first state to adopt its own toxic-chemical control law.

And, of special personal significance for Rice, the EPA administrator singled out a family of flame-retardant chemicals as needing immediate attention.

Rice's concerns about those chemicals got her thrown off an EPA scientific panel during the Bush administration.

''When I read that, I have to admit I smiled,'' Rice said.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's announcement seemed to get smiles, or at least support, from pretty much everyone, including scientists, public health advocates, concerned parents and the chemical manufacturing industry.

The federal Toxics Control Act hasn't been updated since it was enacted in 1976, and it wasn't very effective back then, its critics say. While intended to keep dangerous industrial chemicals out of consumer products, the law exempted all existing chemicals at the time, including the flame retardants.

''None of these chemicals have ever been approved by the federal government for safety in consumer products,'' said Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. ''In 33 years, only five chemicals have been restricted.''

According to Rice, who once worked for the EPA assessing toxic chemicals, the law was ''exquisitely designed to make sure nothing gets done. It's not good for industry; it's not good for anybody.''

A few things have changed recently to get everyone, including the chemical industry, ready to start over.

A new president and a new EPA administrator are important factors, but probably not the biggest ones.

First, industrial chemicals are showing up in many more places as science evolves. And a lot of people are more nervous about what's escaping from all of their stuff into their homes, cars, offices and bodies.

''I think the public awareness and concern is at an all-time high,'' Belliveau said. ''You've got parents abandoning plastic baby bottles because they leach bisphenol-A. You've got flame retardants in household dust and peregrine falcons.''

Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-Northhaven, can attest to raised awareness. She was part of a scientific study in 2007 and learned that her body contained 35 toxic chemicals, including flame retardants used in television casings.

Pingree later led the effort to pass Maine's so-called Kid-Safe Products Act. It was the nation's first such law at the state level, requiring public notification when chemicals of concern are used in consumer products sold here. State experts are now working to identify those priority chemicals.

''I think this used to be a small environmental movement and it's now in the mainstream,'' Pingree said. ''Clearly, people are looking for a sense of safety and they're saying, 'How on earth would the government allow these chemicals to be put into baby products?'''

California, Minnesota and Washington have since passed their own toxics laws, and others are considering legislation.

''This sent ripples around the country, and the EPA noticed, as well as the chemical industry,'' Belliveau said.

The prospect of state-by-state regulation and sagging public confidence in the safety of everyday products led the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for chemical manufacturers, to come out in support of a toxics control overhaul even before the EPA announced its plans.

''We think that consumers will be best served and industry will be best served by having one federal system and policy that is doing the most comprehensive evaluation of the safety of chemicals,'' council President Cal Dooley told news reporters this week.

The American Chemistry Council, by the way, was the group that got Rice booted from the panel reviewing flame retardants last year.

Rice had testified before the Maine Legislature in support of phasing out the chemical deca PBDE because of laboratory test results and public health concerns.

The industry group complained to the EPA that Rice's comments revealed a bias against the chemical and asked that she be removed from the EPA's review panel. The agency complied, citing ''the perception of a conflict of interest.''

Rice's removal triggered a wave of criticism about political influence in the EPA. She ended up testifying about it during a congressional hearing.

While uncomfortable at the time, she said, the episode led to needed reforms in the agency.

''It was one of the things that prompted this scrutiny,'' she said. ''It ended up being a good thing.''

And, instead of nursing a bruised reputation, Rice last month won a $100,000 Heinz Award for her research in the field of neurotoxicology.

And finally, this week, the EPA gave Rice, and a lot of other people, one more reason to smile.

''I think it's wonderful,'' she said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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