Jacqueline Wattles photo
Former UConn Basketball Coach Jim Calhoun joins lawmakers, activists in push for chemical monitoring (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

Lawmakers and activists congregated at the capitol Thursday morning to press for action on a bill that would allow state government to monitor “chemicals of concern” in consumer products.

The bill, which is currently on the House calendar, calls for the Department of Public Health to create a list of potentially toxic substances and requires the department to provide recommendations for reducing human exposure to those chemicals. It targets chemicals that may be harmful to children in particular by requiring any chemical that shows up in umbilical cord blood or breast milk to be automatically added to the list.

Dr. Karim Ahmed, a biomedical science professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center and a National Council for Science and the Environment board member, said the legislation should be the highest priority for lawmakers.

“We are introducing hundreds of thousands of new chemicals each year without testing them,” Ahmed said. “For anyone to say the federal government is watching over us, that’s not really true. They do some testing to see how it would affect adults, but not children.”

Ahmed said toxic chemicals could be present in children’s toys, food packaging, or any number of consumer products.

“New substances [are] being introduced each year that still do not routinely test for their potential ill effects on children’s health, such as developmental, nontoxic or neurological disorders,” Ahmed said in his testimony to the Children’s Committee in March.

Rep. Diana Urban, the House chair of the Children’s Committee, championed the bill and said it focuses on researching and monitoring precarious chemicals that are “bioavailabile” to children, meaning they can be absorbed by a child through any means of contact: eating, touching, or even breathing.

“We want to create a system that is able to look at these chemicals. Previously we’ve looked at banning chemicals. We banned one chemical, then they come up with [another]. The real message here is that not all chemicals are bad chemicals. There have been great advances made by good chemicals,” Urban said.

U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal also expressed support for the legislation and agreed with Ahmed that the current regulatory structure is ineffective at keeping harmful chemicals out of the marketplace.

Sean Scanlon, Murphy’s outreach coordinator, spoke on Murphy’s behalf.

“The federal government is definitely not acting, and that is a huge problem,” Scanlon said. “After the legislation passes here, we have to raise our voices to the debate that’s happening in Washington. 1976 is when TSCA [Toxic Substances Control Act], which is the bill that regulates these substances in Washington, was passed and in the 40 years since then we have not had an update on that bill.”

Scanlon added that Blumenthal and Murphy are currently working on “compromise legislation” that would regulate similar chemicals at the federal level.

The Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Connecticut — a 55-member organization of citizens, health professionals, and environmental groups — has been a backer of the bill and hosted the rally on Thursday. The coordinator of the coalition, Anne Hulick, said she took on chemical substance legislation because she was tired of seeing ineffective measures at the federal level. She said manufacturers have easily side-stepped legislation by altering a single molecule to create a “new” chemical that retains malicious properties.

“Childhood brain cancer and leukemia has risen 20 percent since the 1970s. Adult cancers and autism spectrum disorders has seen a 10-fold increase in just over 15 years. Research has shown a link between all of these and toxic chemical exposure,” Hulick said, adding that the University of Connecticut and Yale would be among the research partners that would work with the Department of Public Health on developing alternatives to toxic substances. “We need to start protecting our children now and this legislation is a common-sense step in the right direction.”

Among the bill’s supporters is former UConn Basketball Head Coach Jim Calhoun. Calhoun said being a three-time cancer survivor and having a grandson diagnosed with autism made him attuned to chemical toxicity issues.

“I don’t believe the situation we’re in now is anything more than a representation of unintended consequences of the technological age,” Calhoun said. “This society was built on technological ingenuity, but in this age when we can produce anything into something else, the unintended consequence is toxic chemicals that are in our food and in our packaging.

The American Sustainable Business Council is an environmental advocacy coalition based out of Washington that represents more than 165,000 businesses across the country. The CEO, David Levine, joined Thursday’s rally with the message that the proposed legislation is not anti-business, but instead “will drive innovation.”

“This is not a choice between the health of the environment and our children and the health of business,” Levine said. “I’m here on behalf of the American Sustainable Business Council and businesses in Connecticut that believe you can build a new type of economy that creates a balance between financial gain and creating social and environmental benefit.”

Levine pointed to the results of a recent ASBC poll of 511 businesses that suggest 73 percent of small business oweners agree government should regulate product safety. Further, the data says 91 percent agree that chemical manufacturers should be held responsible for ensuring their chemicals are safe, and 82 percent favored ensuring chemical information throughout the supply chain.

“Our businesses are hearing from the consumers, and the consumers are saying, ‘We want safe, healthier products,’” Levine said. “And identifying chemicals of concern will actually help our businesses make smarter decisions and drive our businesses in this direction.”

With the June 5 deadline for legislation looming, state Rep. Phil Miller, who spoke in favor of the legislation at the rally, said support for the bill in the House may not be enough to push it through.