Bill proposed to phase out chemicals in household items


Would phase out PBTs, which cause cancer, birth defects, and other health problems

The convenience of non-stick cookware and the stain-resistance of pizza boxes, popcorn bags, carpets and fabrics have all come under scrutiny by a bill introduced by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

According to Merkley, that convenience comes at a price ? the use of a class of chemicals known as “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals," or PBTs.

The Protecting America’s Families from Toxic Chemicals Act would require federal regulators to phase out most applications of PBTs within the next five years. The phase-out would apply to all uses with a few exceptions — where the elimination of a chemical would damage national security, cause a significant disruption to the economy, or when there is no alternative.

“We need to get these dangerous chemicals out of consumer products immediately,” Merkley said. “These chemicals are the worst of the worst. They cause cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities and many other serious health problems. It’s unacceptable that these chemicals go into so many products used by families and children, even couches and mattresses, yet there are virtually no limits on their use. My bill would help protect innocent families from deadly diseases and leave our environment safer and more livable.”

Examples of chemicals addressed in the bill include mercury, lead, and flame retardants. Brominated flame retardants, commonly found in upholstered furniture and mattresses, have been shown to cause birth defects and learning disabilities. A chemical called PFOS, used to add stain resistance, is used to make non-stick cookware, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, carpets and fabrics, and is known to contribute to developmental disorder, cancers and thyroid disease.

Muriel DeLaVergne-Brown , director of the Crook County Health Department, said that a number of chemicals listed in this bill were originally grandfathered as part of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

“There have been a lot of studies since then and more is known about these chemicals,” she said. “From a public health standpoint, we do know now that exposure to individual chemicals really does increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses.”

According to the EPA, PBTs are highly toxic, long-lasting substances that build up in the food chain to levels that are harmful to human and ecosystem health. They are associated with a range of adverse human health effects, including effects on the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, and genetic impacts.

The EPA also believes that children, and developing fetuses, are most at risk to PBTs such as mercury, dioxins, and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). The EPA's challenge in reducing risks from PBTs stems from the pollutants' ability to travel long distances, transfer rather easily among air, water, and land and linger for generations in people and the environment.

Merkley's bill has the support of the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition that is dedicated to reforming toxic chemical laws.

Deputy Director Lindsay Dahl expressed her enthusiasm for the bill.

“We’ve been talking about PBTs for years because of their three nefarious characteristics: they remain in the environment for long periods of time, they build up or accumulate in body tissue, and they are highly toxic,” she said. “Even worse, they are found in the most sacred food source — breast milk.”

Dahl goes on to explain that the bill lists 22 known PBT chemicals for which the EPA can decide to skip the identification process and jump straight to its phaseout for all but the most critical use.

They include brominated flame retardants that are found in consumer products including living room sofas, computers, and other textiles. Heavy metals are also on the list including lead, mercury, and cadmium. Asbestos, and “musk,” a common ingredient found in fragrances, detergents and perfumes that has been linked to cancer and reproductive problems are also targeted.

DeLaVergne-Brown agreed that Merkley's proposed bill focuses on chemicals that have been proven to be dangerous and goes a long way in informing the public about the dangers of exposure to everyday chemical use.

“Our job is to protect the public, their health, and the environment,” she said. “There are a lot of medical and business professionals that have been looking at this issue for awhile. How do we ensure that there are not chemicals out there that are really effecting people's health?”

DeLaVergne-Brown also emphasized that it is exposure to these chemicals over time that must be considered.

“When a test is done on a chemical, you must think of its cumulative effect,” she explained.

As of July 24, the proposed bill had completed its second reading and been referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, of which Merkely is a member.

To track the progress of the Protecting America’s Families from Toxic Chemicals Act, go to